Over the last two decades tens of thousands of Bangladeshis have left their homes every month seeking greener pastures abroad where they can get jobs with higher income and greater savings. They also look forward to such prospect so that they can remit some of their earnings to their family members back home. They want to be part of the Bangladeshi expatriate labour force of more than seven million that are scattered all over the world, particularly in different countries in the Middle East, North Africa and SouthEast Asia. They are encouraged to undertake their journeys as many of their relatives have become economic migrants in these countries and also in Europe and North America.
The last two financial years have however seen changes because of the impact of the Covid pandemic. This has had a socio-economic impact both in terms of numbers of people going abroad as expatriate workers and also in the context of being able to find work in the industrial sectors.
However, despite all the evolving difficulties some interesting statistics have emerged from the Bangladesh Bank. Remittance inflow in the fiscal 2020-21 has hit a record high of US Dollar 24.77 billion. In fiscal 2019-20 it was just over US Dollar 18 billion. It was a 36 per cent rise on a year-to-year comparison.
However, subsequently, it has also been pointed out by Debapriya Bhattacharya of the CPD that in July this financial year-- 2021-22, remittances had gone down by 28 per cent compared to that of the same month of FY 2020-21. This has become a cause of concern for the relevant authorities.
Some analysts have suggested that this might have been due to the steady fall in the numbers going abroad. The country has also had to cope with increasing number of workers returning back to Bangladesh. This evolving circumstance has resulted partially due to the effects of political violence in the countries they were working in the Middle East and North Africa and also because of the effects of recession that has affected the world economy in the last few years.
Considering the above, one needs to understand that there has been an increase in remittance because of a better, efficient and regulated handling of remittances from different sources. It also suggests that the migrant workforce is beginning to use more formal channels than the previous "Hundi" format to repatriate their savings to Bangladesh. One must in this context note that the fine-tuning of the banking arrangement initiated by the Bangladesh Bank has worked as an important catalytic factor in our workers' switching from the previous informal channels to formal ones.
This process has also gained acceptance because the delivery channel of inward remittances to the beneficiaries has improved due to the ever expanding use of mobile banking by commercial banks and their facilitation measures. Another reason for higher remittance flow has been the stable US Dollar-Taka exchange rate.
Commenting on this aspect, the Bangladesh Bank has also pointed out that it, as part of the moves, is allowing local banks to establish exchange houses and drawing arrangements abroad to assist the inflow of remittances. This is a good move.
Economists, despite the ongoing difficulties, are now hoping that the flow of inward remittances will increase further in the coming months when manpower export to Malaysia restarts through private sector channels and labour recruitment resumes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. It would be fitting to note here that bilateral discussions with Saudi Arabia has enabled Bangladesh to gain some positive changes with regard to both Iqamas (work permits) for expatriates from Bangladesh searching for jobs and also entry into that country pertaining to vaccination requirements and associated quarantine measures.
It needs to be understood that we are facing many difficulties within this sector. However, it does not mean that measures are not underway to try and overcome the challenges. This approach has led to Bangladesh today, as a result of these developments, becoming a low middle-income country, with foreign exchange reserves of over US Dollar 43 billion. It has gradually moved upwards in the ladder of recipients of remittances in the world.
Bangladesh authorities have also taken steps and have been searching for new labour markets abroad. Within this paradigm technical training is being provided to enhance the skill factor, particularly in the field of technology. This will be possible only if we take the right steps to improve not only the quality in our educational system but also associated skills. Such development initiatives and vocational training need to be introduced from the secondary stage in the schools.
Japan has already come forward in this regard. They have noted that development of skills would also foster the prospect of entrepreneurship among the Bangladeshis. It is understood that many Bangladeshi technical interns are receiving training in Japan under the apprenticeship programme. They are doing so under a financial scholarship based training tenure. It has been hinted that the technical interns who successfully complete their participation in this training programme will receive resources for setting up business ventures after they return to Bangladesh. One must not forget the multiplier effect of such assistance.
Legal channels are also being streamlined. Similarly, as the range of competition increases and diversifies, emphasis is also given towards expatriate workers taking on the task of learning foreign languages. It may be mentioned here that Sri Lanka and the Philippines have both set examples in this regard. Bangladesh is also trying to create a more skilled female workforce.
Bangladesh is also using its diplomatic channel to identify possible areas and countries where Bangladeshi expatriate workers can be sent. Such market destinations have included some countries in Eastern Europe-- such as Poland, Albania and Romania. In Asia, the focus has been on Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Necessary monitoring and measures are also being adopted by the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) to modernise their activities through digitalisation. They are also attempting to create and maintain a database of the expatriate workers to streamline immigration management. It is being hoped that this interactive management procedure will improve not only supervision of the activities of our expatriate workers but also assist them during difficult situations.
Nevertheless, there is also the need to mention about the other side of the coin-- the horrible aspects that have surfaced over the last two years associated with human trafficking.
The world media has highlighted how thousands of poverty-stricken people, tempted by criminal middle-men, have undertaken perilous voyages in ramshackle boats, trying to enter Thailand and Malaysia as illegal immigrants. It has been painful to watch the plight of these trafficking victims in the electronic media, their dreams shattered, being rescued from savage detention camps hidden in the coastal jungles bordering the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.
Apparently, such human trafficking grew in dimension over the last four years when traffickers targeted not only Muslim Rohingyas and their family members trying to escape the harsh discriminatory living conditions in their country, Myanmar but also Bangladeshis attempting to illegally enter Thailand and Malaysia.
These criminal middle-men in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia appear to have perpetrated human rights violations and nefarious activities basking in the shelter of corrupt politicians and law-enforcement personnel. It would be fitting to note here that many senior law-enforcement personnel, local government officials and corrupt politicians involved in such matters in Thailand and Malaysia have been relieved of their duties and taken into judicial custody.
Regretfully, it needs to be noted that such similar drastic measures have not been taken to the required degree in Bangladesh pertaining to corrupt manpower brokers.
The Malaysian government, it has been reported in their media, is trying to launch a special drive against illegal foreign workers working in that country. It has subsequently been suggested that this move would be directed towards recruitment of low-skilled migrant workers from Bangladesh. This would be within the framework of a Business-to-Business (B2B) mechanism that will use private recruitment/employment agencies. Experts think that this might reduce illegal human trafficking from Bangladesh to Malaysia. This will be a departure from the earlier agreed Government-to-Government (G2G) process. Analysts think that the association of the private sector in both countries will assist the process. We have to wait and see.
Attention has recently also been drawn to another interesting probability-- the huge service market for labour intensive, and care-based work in Canada like nursing, elderly care, retail work and construction projects. It has also been indicated that considering the socio-economic aspects of Canada, the migration requirement has a relatively higher skill cap compared to the Middle East, but the Bangladesh government may consider launching specific campaigns to train workers to develop soft skills suited for the Canadian workspace. Such demand-wise capacity building can greatly benefit both countries. It will also help our remittance factor.
It is clear that the migration potential of Bangladesh can and will grow. Over time we will be able to make inroads, especially in the construction, health, banking, management and services sectors. With proper vocational training, we will also be able to find jobs for our people in electrical repairs, para-medical assistance, plumbing and accounting. This will help us to break through the glass ceiling.
If we can follow this constructive path in the development of our human resources, we can then avoid shattered dreams that result from relying on criminals who make fortunes through human trafficking.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.