A widely-apprehended post-Covid-19 job crisis at home, to be accompanied by moratorium on hiring foreign workers in many countries, may lead to rise in human trafficking from Bangladesh, according to migration experts.
More than 100,000 Bangladeshi expatriates have already returned home since the outbreak of coronavirus and, stakeholders say, over 1.0 million more may lose jobs in a number of destinations.
Even if the coronavirus is prevented soon, it is almost certain that job scopes in the Middle East, the largest destination for Bangladeshi workers, will shrink. Malaysia has decided not to recruit migrant workers this year and many other countries are going to follow suit, stakeholders say.
So, they apprehend, traffickers may allure jobless youths and returnee migrants to take adventurous journey to reach attractive destinations like Europe.
"The number of jobless youths may increase in the coming days as the economic activities have already been hampered," said Shakirul Islam, chairman of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Programme (OKUP).
The intending migrants will not be able to go abroad when the host countries are not in a position to receive them soon amid the pandemic, he added.
"So, traffickers may use this situation with promises of jobs in uncommon destinations."
Human trafficking rackets are active to exploit the migrant workers.
Recently, 26 Bangladeshi trafficking victims were shot dead by a gang in Libya. The foreign office in Dhaka said the workers were assured that they would be employed in Italy.
Some Bangladeshis were among 2.0 million people who crossed the Mediterranean since April 2014. More than 19,000 of them died in accidents, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Since January, at least 693 Bangladeshis have been arrested for trying to travel to Europe illegally, says a BRAC study.
A corona-induced shutdown has badly impacted income of 95 per cent households in the country, according to a World Vision Bangladesh study.
Many low-paid workers and employees are returning to village home losing opportunities in urban areas such as Dhaka.
More than 2.0 million youths enter the job market each year, but less than one-fifth of them can manage jobs at home while some 600,000-700,000 are absorbed abroad, the official data suggest.
Unless the authorities draw up new plans and offer support to vulnerable workers, migration experts warn, some of these desperate youths may fall prey to human traffickers who would promise them good jobs. Some expatriates, stranded in different countries, may embrace risky path.
Over 80 per cent Bangladeshi workers in Libya were forced to migrate to Italy due to job crisis in the civil war-torn country, according to a 2018 OKUP study.
Sadly, it found, almost 80 per cent of the migrants knew that they might die in the sea. Surprisingly, 90.2 per cent of the surveyed families were also aware of the risks associated with the journey.
There are several syndicates of traffickers including brokers who target low-income people in rural Bangladesh. Investigations show that sometimes they contact people at home to send them directly to destinations and in other cases, traffickers target Bangladeshi workers staying abroad.
According to migration experts, traffickers use three routes to send migrants to Europe. The routes are Bangladesh-Turkey-Libya-Europe; Bangladesh-India/Sri Lanka-Libya-Europe and Bangladesh-UAE-Jordan-Libya-Europe.
Of late, a new route has been added - from Algeria as a transit to send Bangladeshis to Spain via Morocco.
At least 56 workers were reportedly taken to Algeria last year.
Stakeholders suspect the traffickers may change routes following the pandemic since almost every country remains cautious. Terrain that comparatively unprotected may be used for trafficking.
Mansur Ali (not real name) who hails from Madaripur district said after spending three years at a Dubai construction firm, he got an offer from a colleague to go to Europe.
He was introduced to a person and they made a deal worth US$2,000.
"I dreamt of a new life in Europe. I went to Oman by road and reached Iran by speedboat," he told the FE, adding, "The agent forced me to pay US$6,000 upon arrival in Iran. When I was sent to Turkey, I was locked for five months until my family managed to pay US$10,000."
Mansur Ali was sent to Greece but police caught and sent him to jail. "I was sentenced to two years of imprisonment in a false case of rioting inside the jail. Once freed, I made a deal with a person to enter Italy," he said.
Mansur Ali recalled he walked nine nights through train lines to reach a local agent's house in Macedonia before entering Serbia. "The agent tried 10 times before I succeeded in arriving in Hungary. As luck betrayed with me, the Hungarian police detained and put me in a camp," he added.
"A new agent managed to ensure my release in exchange for 500 Euro. I finally reached Italy at the end of 2016."
Shrinking overseas jobs
It is widely apprehended that around 25 million migrant workers may lose jobs due to coronavirus.
As recession affects nations, manpower importing countries in the Middle East may not reopen market soon, recruiters apprehend. No such prospect is there in Malaysia and Singapore in next one year.
Some 150,000 workers, who were about to fly before the pandemic, are unlikely to go with jobs in near future.
There is no possibility that the countries will be able to start recruitment within a year, said Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, secretary general of Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA).
Moreover, different types of changes in rules and regulations may happen during the post-Covid-19 period by the job destination countries.
So, there is no good news for the workers who are now in the pipeline of going abroad, he said.
Furthermore, insiders say, up to 700,000 (0.7 million) undocumented Bangladeshi workers, many in Saudi Arabia, are at a risk of deportation. According to the Bangladesh mission in Saudi Arabia, about 1.0 million workers may be sent back home in next 3-5 years.
Notwithstanding loss of opportunities in traditional markets, fresh jobs may be created elsewhere. But, experts say, that market will be meant for skilled workers like medical support staff or service-oriented workers.
The German government has engaged refugees and migrants in such jobs.
There are shortfalls in manpower for medical products and services in USA, Japan, and Canada. Besides, developed countries are making massive investment to boost economy and only specialized professionals and workers will be required there.
Italy is one of the countries where Bangladeshi workers have realistic chances of securing employment, stakeholders say.
They have still expressed apprehension that unless the Bangladesh authorities can provide jobs skills to create job opportunities through official channels, human traffickers may try to allure Bangladeshi migrants with false promise of sending them to European countries.
Implications for remittances
As workers lost jobs or remained unpaid recently, they could not send home expected amount of remittance. During the post-pandemic period, many fear, remittances may fall.
The present trend may continue till Eid-ul-Azha as workers would try to send money as much as possible, said Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, Research Director at Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD). Remittances might fall after the festival, he added.
"There is hardly any possibility of normal flow of remittances in next one year due to shrinkage of job markets," he expressed apprehension.
The researcher stressed the need for making diplomatic efforts to stop deportation of workers from different countries. "Bangladesh can also make an appeal through international forums to stop deportation of workers during the crisis," he added.
Bangladesh Bank (BB) statistics showed that the inflow of remittances grew by about 11 per cent to a record US$ 18.20 billion in the just-concluded fiscal year (FY) 2019-20. The figure jumped from $16.42 billion in FY 2018-19, the data released on July 2 showed.
Migrants' rights activists recommend strengthening vigilance, ensuring punishment for human traffickers and creating income generating activities at home to prevent such crimes.
Sumaiya Islam, executive director of Bangladesh Nari Sramik Kendra (BNSK), sees higher possibility of increasing human trafficking once Covid-19 is over. "The culprits should be brought to book as per laws," she insisted.
Head of BRAC's migration programme Shariful Islam Hasan observed that human traffickers take advantage of the situation when official migration remains halted.
He suggested widening employment opportunities at home to help the workers overcome the crisis. "Concerted efforts with international organisations are needed to break the rackets of human traffickers," he added.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh's position has been upgraded to Tier 2 from the Tier-2 Watch List in the United States report on 2020 global Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. One notch slip from the Watch List could be devastating. The US State Department released the report on June 25 last.
When contacted, Ahmed Munirus Saleheen, secretary at the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment, said they are working with the law enforcement agencies to deal with human trafficking. "We've a plan to run more awareness campaigns about dangers of human trafficking among people," he said.