The ever beckoning overseas shores

Shihab Sarkar | Published: October 04, 2018 21:11:32 | Updated: October 04, 2018 21:15:55

Some haggard and apparently dazed Bangladeshi unskilled workers have recently been seen break down inconsolably at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka. The scene was not much unusual. Over the last few years, the spectacles of aspirant migrant workers returning from abroad, jobless -- and burdened with debt back at home, has become a recurring view. Most of these labourers, cheated by phony manpower recruiting agents as well as human trafficking syndicates, once returned from the Gulf countries. In the last few years, the chief venue has largely shifted to Malaysia. The Southeast Asian country's manpower hiring scenario has in the last one year undergone drastic changes, adding to the ordeals of the undocumented Bangladeshi workers there. A formidable network of recruiting agents operating in both Bangladesh and Malaysia has made things unbearable for these workers. This is what has begun besetting the job scenarios in countries which are picked by workers from poorer regions. A notable exception, however, is South Korea. Perhaps it is the only manpower-importing country in Asia, which has in place a decent system in employing foreign workers, with no bitter feeling on the part of either the employers or the workers.

The developments now occurring in the migrant workers' employment sector in Malaysia were once literally beyond the popular notion. To the disillusionment of the aspirant foreign workers, the employment provisions and laws have lately created an adverse situation for them. This has entangled thousands of undocumented Bangladeshi labour force there.  After the enforcement of a rehiring programme by the country's new government in 2016, the undocumented workers were required to apply for regularising their immigration status. Manpower syndicates swooped on them. Despite spending huge sums for processing the documents, few of the distraught workers could be able to get their legalised papers.  Like in a few developed countries such as the present USA, many long-staying migrant workers in the previously welcoming countries now brace for newer rules and laws. These laws continue to make the migrants' stay in those lands fraught with worries.

The job market in the Middle East has started getting squeezed since the first decade of the new century. In 2018 Libya, Iraq and the other oil-rich countries of the past no longer beckon the manual and blue-collar workers. The only reason they let themselves be caught in the trap of manpower syndicates is meeting the dream of reaching the European shores. The whole venture has been a gamble since its start. Its success-failure ratio once turned out to be 50:50. In the early phase of the risk-laden endeavours of crossing the seas, many war and violence-displaced people from the Middle East could finish their voyage successfully. It was only a matter of time that international human traffickers would enter the scene. And in course of time they started calling the tune in the whole Europe-bound migration process. The migrants comprised both safe shelter and job seekers and fortune seekers. Compared to the people from North Africa, Iraq, Syria and the neighbouring countries, the number of those from Bangladesh was minuscule. In the face of the fading overseas job market, people from this country desperately jumped on the transit through the Libyan coast and the Mediterranean to reach Europe. It did not take long for these star-crossed people to fall prey to international traffickers. The devastated youths who have returned from Libya had to pass through series of ordeals and sufferings inflicted on them by the members of the trafficking gangs. They have been demanding hefty amounts of money since they reached Libya. They already paid them large sums back in Bangladesh.

These ordeals undergone by today's people seeking fortune abroad were beyond the farthest recess of thought of the generations in the 1950s and the 1960s. Those were the days free of uncertainties over settling down in a foreign land. The gesture of warm welcome from the cherished lands had been assured beforehand. The voyage makers thus were largely free of many anxieties and trepidations that haunt today's migration-seekers. Instead of these negative feelings, the aspiring migrants would remain filled with dreams interspersed with thrill. The journeys would normally begin with a mood of adventure. Settling down in a big US city like New York 60 to 70 years back was too easy back then. Those were the days of love, mutual trust and fraternity. The state policy comprised generous invitations extended to the harried, persecuted and battered humanity round the world. Those were focused mainly on a single theme: accept the American embrace. Thanks to this clarion call, most people from this land who would embark on the journey to America did not think of returning soon. Moreover, few would land on the American soil for picking short-duration jobs. The average immigrants from the then sub-continent would be found looking for opportunities to start individual business. Descendants of many of them are now spread throughout the USA.

A nearly similar episode unfolded in Great Britain in the same period. The migrant community from East Bengal who left their homeland to settle mainly in London also preferred business to jobs. But the openings to business were not many. Those were limited in terms of variety. Thus majority of the migrating fortune-seekers from East Bengal, especially from the greater Sylhet community, started catering and restaurant business. The rest joined petty jobs. Their stay in the United Kingdom, however, dates back to the period stretching from the 17th to the early 20th centuries. The British East India Company during this period employed thousands of workers from Punjab's Sikh community and East Bengal's Sylhet region to British ships. Many of them later settled down in Britain's port towns. A sizeable number of the workers included British naval cooks from Sylhet. This was how the restaurant business run by previous naval cooks took root in London. However, Bengalees emigrating from East Bengal in the 1950s and the 1960s are regarded as the first-generation immigrants from Bangladesh.

Despite being a land not much favoured by Bengalee immigrants and, later, job seekers, Australia can boast of hosting Bengalees from East Bengal as early as 19th century. It has recently been discovered that a Bengalee community used to settle in the Broken Hill area in Australia's far-west New South Wales. The Bengalees, Muslim by faith, were believed to be saying their prayers in the area's Broken Hill's Mosque. What has lent credence to the fact of their being Bengalees was the discovery of a Bangla book containing a long rhymed poem as found in early 'puthis'. Printed in clear but early Bangla typography, the poem contains an episode from the Islamic history. Long acknowledged as a heritage site, the Broken Hill area also used to be visited by Afghan caravans of the time.

Migrations of the bygone days used to witness people from Bangladesh embark on journeys to far-away lands to begin a new life. For many, those were just amateurish stints to earn money, and upon return home spend the rest of life in affluence and earthly comfort. A lot of them would be driven by the urge also to make expeditions to unknown lands. The mission to go abroad had a great appeal for many in those days. The motivation mainly comprised mundane considerations. But in conformity with the traits of a section of people, the desire to move into uncharted waters also served as a driving force. That's perhaps the reason Bengalees have reached territories as far as South American regions.  As has been seen through the ages, a slow but steady fanning out of Bengalees to different parts of the world has never stopped. Realities have changed. Overseas employment is now the first option, with many eventually becoming immigrants. The elements of adventure have been consigned to the backburner. At the same time, newer hazards and adversities continue to grip the ventures. But they cannot thwart the dreams of the daredevil people. 


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