Thousands of Bangladeshi workers staying abroad without proper documents risk being deported, due in part to coronavirus pandemic in countries that host them, according to insiders in the manpower export sector.
They said the number of illegal workers in different countries could be between 600,000 (0.6 million) and 700,000 (0.7 million).
Half of them are staying in Saudi Arabia alone. Factors like so-called free visa, overstaying and cheating by manpower recruiters have made the workers undocumented, they said.
The situation has prompted crackdown on irregular workers. About 35,000 Bangladeshi undocumented workers have been sent back in the last two months.
A good number of workers, now stranded in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Lebanon, Bahrain and the Maldives, will be deported gradually, expatriates' welfare ministry officials said.
Besides, the Malaysian government has been conducting drive against irregular foreign workers amid coronavirus pandemic.
Migrant rights activists and workers said at least 2,000 migrant workers were arrested by the Malay immigration department from four spots this month. Of them, a significant number is Bangladeshis.
After lifting of the lockdown, the Malaysian authorities may start the process of sending back the workers. Lockdown will continue in the Southeast Asian nation until June 9, they said.
Abu Haiyat, a Malaysia-based Bangladeshi freelance researcher, said because of exploitation by a section of dishonest manpower recruiters, a significant number of Bangladeshi workers became irregular.
They are now fearful of deportation. They are also facing acute crisis of food and healthcare. The Malaysian police are conducting raids in the areas where concentration of foreign workers is high, he said.
Mr Azad, an expatriate residing in Khamis in Saudi Arabia, said workers who came in the kingdom with so-called free visas became undocumented, because they did not work under 'kafeels' or sponsors mentioned in their contract papers.
Most of them were working as contractual workers in different real estate companies. But now there is hardly any possibility of being re-employed as the economic condition of the kingdom has been deteriorating following the slump in oil price, he said.
"It will be very tough for Bangladeshis to stay in this country," he added.
Rights campaigners suggested taking diplomatic initiatives to help regularise the workers in their job destination countries as the migrants spent a large amount of money to finance their migration.
If the workers return home, it will create a pressure on the overall economy and society, they said.
Shariful Islam Hasan, head of BRAC's migration programme, said the government will have to adopt a proper policy to check irregular migration during the post-Covid period.
He also recommended a sustainable reintegration for the returned workers.
When contacted, expatriates' welfare and overseas employment secretary Ahmed Munirus Saleheen said a significant number of workers are expected to be repatriated home because of the impact of pandemic.
The government will undertake a short, medium and long-term plan to support the workers. The government has also has announced a stimulus package of Tk 5.0 billion for the sector.
It will launch a low-cost fund of Tk 2.0 billion within this month for migrant workers who are returning home because of coronavirus.
The loan will be disbursed through the Probashi Kallyan Bank at 4.0 per cent rate of interest, the secretary said.
Meanwhile, deportation and job loss of Bangladeshi workers in their employing countries have started impacting Bangladesh's remittance earnings.
The monthly remittance earning which was nearly US$1.7 billion in December last gradually declined to only US$1.08 billion, according to statistics available with the central bank. Predictions are that the amount might see some increase this month on the eve of Eid-festival before plunging again.
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