Between fortune and fate


Saad Hammadi investigates how a complex web of vested groups is trafficking Bangladeshi women to Gulf states, only to be exploited, and while they send back nearly three-fourths of their foreign earnings, their government remains silent

Photo by Syeda FarhanaReksona Begum has returned from Saudi Arabia last month with painful memories and nightmares, she never expected in a place where she fled in hope of well paid and decent jobs. ‘It was unbearable!’ says the lady when she recalls the ruthless torture under the guise of household work, and not surprisingly, she was just another victim of sexual exploitation.

As hard as it is to believe, this is the case of thousands migrating to Gulf States and countries like Jordan and Spain, where Bangladeshis not only starve for days and weeks but live in dreadful conditions. For women the realities are worse.

A divorcee and a single parent, Reksona, somewhere in her 30s was unemployed and living with her parents after divorce. However, life proved to be difficult as the financial burdens of a joint family where high and hard to keep up with.

In most cases, women are trafficked when people like Reksona become so desperate to do something for their family, that they are pushed to the edge. In case of Reksona, she was lured with a well-paid job abroad. The offer was placed by Islam, a trusted neighbour. Islam, a rickshaw puller, convinced Reksona that she could go to Saudi Arabia and earn good money for her family only if she could arrange Tk 30,000 for her migration.

Agreeing to the terms, Reksona was introduced to the Royal Associates International Limited at Banani. The agency managed her legal formalities and sent her to Saudi Arabia.

Reksona, a recent returnee after a few months stay at the desert kingdom, now alleges that in the guise of a well paid job described to her as household work, she was brutally tortured and sexually exploited. Many women like Reksona are reported to have often encountered with similar situations at the Gulf States and mostly in Saudi Arabia.

‘They beat me up mercilessly for not understanding their words,’ says a tear-choked Reksona.

Like Reksona, a number of returnees from Saudi Arabia accused the recruiting agencies like Royal Associates of being involved in the sex business, run through a nexus between countries of origin and departure. Those who give in are kept abroad while the rebels are abandoned and left stranded, Reksona told Rights Jessore, a local non-government organisation that rescued her.

It is estimated that more than 10,000 to 20,000 women who are trafficked every year for work mostly in Gulf States meet a similar fate.

Experts and human rights organisations allege that a criminal network of local recruitment agencies and recruiting organisations abroad conspire to recruit women with the promise of well paid jobs abroad and force them into hard labour, sex work, as well as physical and mental abuse. They are charged inflated rates by the agencies here and are also at times cheated of their payments once they go abroad.

The government meanwhile has done little to protect woman migrants- a section who reportedly contribute a much higher percentage of their remittances than their male counterparts.

Islam who persuaded Reksona to go abroad is actually a broker with the Royal Associates and claims to have been a victim of a similar situation himself in the past. Nazma Parveen, of Royal Associates, reportedly lured him to send his wife to go to Saudi Arabia for an alleged Tk 40,000.

Through the incident Islam earned the confidence of the recruitment agency and he and Nazma are reported to have transferred at least 10 to 12 women from Jessore to Saudi Arabia in last eight to nine months. He further confessed that at least 20 to 25 women are trafficked every month through Royal Associate International Limited, most of who become victims of violence and sexual exploitation.

Sources at Rights Jessore further inform New Age that Royal Associates International Limited has been cheating people for a long time in this manner, charging them money in various amounts, ranging anywhere between Tk 30,000 and 75,000.

The managing director of Royal Associates International Limited, Ahmedur Rahman Mazumdar, however denies the allegations. ‘Reksona was proved medically unfit at a Saudi hospital and therefore she was sent back,’ he says.

‘As per the government fee, we take exactly Tk 20,000 per client,’ says Mazumdar.

He further alleged that the brokers are the ones pocketing the extra money. ‘We ask them to charge between Tk 1,000 to 1,500, but it has been reported that they often charge large amounts from customers without our permission,’ he says.

According to the State of World Population 2006 released by the UNFPA, migrant women’s contribution to the country in the form of remittance is more than men. The study unveils that Bangladeshi migrant women in the Middle East send 72 per cent of their earnings back home. The study further reveals that 56 per cent of female remittances were used for daily needs, health care or education—a pattern which reflects the spending priorities of migrant women. This is largely because women are more inclined to invest in their children than men.

However, all this is not taken into consideration when these women are ruthlessly exploited by recruitment agencies. Moreover, these agencies, owing to their financial might, are well protected by elements in the government.

‘We have collected evidence against the Royal Associates as well as gathered witnesses and victims for the Manpower Bureau to take action,’ says Binoy Krishna Mallick, executive director of Rights Jessore. ‘However, they have remained immobile till now putting us at risk,’ he adds.

There are at least 740 recruitment agencies licensed by the government but hardly any law or measure is in place to check their activities, say sources at the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET).

Recruitment agencies meanwhile are also accused of depriving migrant workers most of their income alongside failing to secure their human rights.

When asked how the agencies arrange household jobs for women, Mazumdar informs that the agencies acquire the employment permit from the Saudi foreign affairs ministry and then approach the local Royal consular office of Saudi Arabia with the permit to recruit people.

‘While most recruiting agencies acquire license for Tk 10 lakh, we have paid the government Tk 60 lakh for exporting both male and female manpower,’ says Mazumdar.

According to the State of World Population 2006, human trafficking is considered the third largest illicit business after arms and drugs trafficking, and in Bangladesh the crime is acute.

‘Family obligations, unemployment, low wages, poverty, limited social and economic opportunities compel most men and women to seek jobs abroad,’ says CR Abrar, migration expert and professor of International Relations at the Dhaka University.

To protect the women from alleged trafficking, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reports that Bangladesh government once imposed restrictions on female migration. A data from the Bangladesh government unveils that less than 1 per cent of those emigrating between 1991 and 2003 were women. This was largely owing to greater restrictions and bureaucratic hurdles that made it more difficult for women to emigrate.

These, needless to note, only increase the likelihood that women will resort to irregular methods. According to the Asian Development Bank, the Gulf States and South-East Asia are home to considerable numbers of undocumented Bangladeshi women.

Over the years trafficking of manpower through illegal routes increased due to the restriction imposed on migrant women, Abrar tells New Age. It is estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 persons are trafficked every year.

Around 3 lakh people from Bangladesh emigrate every year to fill in various occupations abroad, says Anisur Rahman Khan, secretary general of Welfare Association of Repatriated Bangladeshi Employees (WARBE).

‘Banning is not the solution to protect human rights, rather confronting the problems can make the situation better,’ explains Abrar.

The restriction on migrant women appeared when the foreign ministry received complaints from Saudi returnees in the nineties, however, that did not curb the problem rather worsened the situation. Now the illegal route is preferred by many of the rural community for simpler formalities and quick immigration process.

According to the Human Rights Watch, Bangladeshi migrant workers to Saudi Arabia account for one million to 1.5 million while the majority is illiterate. They pay exorbitant fees to manpower recruiting agencies to obtain employment visas. The average fee ranges from $2,000 to $2,500, according to a Bangladesh-born economist who worked in Saudi Arabia until 2003 and provided assistance to exploited migrant workers there.

The study further reveals that the annual remittances of Bangladeshis working abroad total almost $3 billion, with $1.7 billion of the total from Saudi Arabia alone.

However, the amount would have been higher had the migrants from Bangladesh were not deprived and given human rights protection. In most cases, the migrant workers are deprived of their actual pay, overtime and coerced to work for sixteen to eighteen hours. After all the hard work and forced labour, people of this country are paid around $133 a month, says one emigrant to the Human Rights Watch.

In this regard Abrar mentions that Bangladesh Mission and the country’s embassies can come to the help of deprived Bangladeshis abroad. As most people from Bangladesh migrate to Saudi Arabia without official documents, the missions fail to help them officially.

‘Our manpower within the embassy is weak itself to take care of such problems at Saudi Arabia. Victims fail to lodge complain to the embassy because of long distance between the embassies and their location. The only two embassies at Riyadh and Jeddah cannot take care of the large number of people migrating every year to Saudi Arabia,’ says a highly placed source with the BMET.

The embassies should proactively inquire about the migrant workers after a certain period at their home and workplaces to ensure their security and job satisfaction, recommends Anisur. According to him, this can reduce a lot of complains and secure the migrants.

‘We found migrants from Bangladesh the least educated; they typically were unskilled young men from rural villages whose salaries in Saudi Arabia were the lowest we recorded,’ says a Human Rights Watch research personnel.

‘Language divide is one of the crucial aspects the country must realise,’ stresses Abrar. ‘The country is having its maximum remittances from the Gulf States and especially Saudi Arabia but I am afraid the government has not done much to develop the relationship between the two countries,’ he observes. Due to the difference in language, most migrants are deprived of their promised jobs and pays.

‘It all works with the “iqama”—residency permit granted from Saudi firms that the brokers and local recruiting agencies fake before exporting manpower,’ explains Abrar. Because iqama is prepared in Arabic language, job seekers fail to understand whatever is mentioned in the residency permit and they realise the difference of words only when they land abroad.

He also informed that due to the language divide in many cases, people face difficulties to work there, and often come across violence. He cited the example of Sri Lanka and Philippines where the government has initiated basic foreign language skill for interested migrants to Saudi Arabia.

The pre-departure orientation carried out by the BMET is still not effective to the extent required. Migrant workers are vaguely informed about their work which is why they are often cheated and deprived, believes Anisur of WARBE.

‘The government must establish a treaty between the two countries where the present problems like the language, pay deprivation and human rights is addressed,’ stresses Abrar finds a huge prospect for our manpower in Saudi Arabia otherwise. ‘Many a times I receive positive reports from the migrant women of our country who are doing well in housework, cleaning, apparel industries and hospitals in Saudi Arabia, however I agree that the problems like physical and sexual harassments in the Gulf States remain unaddressed.’

While women are mostly offered domestic work at the Saudi Arabia, most of them are sexually exploited, physically and mentally harassed and those who manage to come back from the trouble often lodge complaints at non-government organisations rather than the government’s concerned departments.

The Human Right Watch further pressed home the need for the government of Saudi Arabia to recognise that its laws and regulations facilitate the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable migrant workers, and reform its laws and practices accordingly.

Further observation of the Human Rights Watch unveil that Bangladeshi migrant workers are often maltreated and threatened with arrests if they ask for their promised payments.

Emran, a twenty-four-year-old from Bangladesh, traveled to Saudi Arabia in 1996 when he was a teenager with a false date of birth on his passport that indicated his age as twenty-two.

He worked in Dammam for a company that owned five butcher shops. In late 2001, the owners closed one of the shops, dismissed Emran, and told him to go back to Bangladesh. Emran said that at this point the company owed him six months of unpaid salary, some of it in arrears for several years. In January 2002, he filed a complaint at the local labour office, demanding his salary, end-of-service benefits, and “release” from the company so that he could stay in the Saudi Arabia and seek work with another employer.

The labour office ordered the company to pay him 4,000 riyals – about $1,067 – and provide a return ticket to Bangladesh, but denied his request for permission to remain in the kingdom. Company representatives arranged a ticket for Emran and told him he would receive his money at the airport. On February 3, 2002, a company representative travelled with Emran to the airport and handed him over to another company employee. ‘He gave me my passport, ticket and only 930 riyals ($248),’ said Emran. ‘When I asked for the rest of the money, he said that if I spoke another word he would hand me over to the police.’

Terrified, Emran took the threat seriously and departed the kingdom without the wages due to him.

Josna Begum is another victim of Saudi bound migrants. Hailing from Jessore, Josna was enticed with well paid job at Saudi Arabia by Abbas, who is another broker with the Royal Associates. In Josna’s, the broker exploited her even before she could depart from her home of origin. Abbas brought Josna at a Dhaka hotel and raped her but she was warned to remain silent if she wanted to go abroad. She had already handed over Tk 70,000 to Abbas to pursue her migration. Her arrival at the Saudi Arabia worsened her position and she was another victim of gang rape at the house she was employed. Empty handed when she returned home after five months, Josna says she was accompanied with 10 other girls when she arrived but were all separated later.

‘We have received the complaints along with evidences against the Royal Associates,’ says Humayan Khan, director, Employment, BMET. Inquiry teams have been formed by both the home ministry and the BMET and an investigation is made into matter, he informed New Age.

Rights sources informed New Age that Abbas was arrested by the police on September 7.

If Royal Associates is convicted for illegal trafficking, its license will be canceled and deposit will be forfeited, Humayan says.

Owing to fears of corrupt police and possible arrest and deportation, trafficked women often prefer to approach NGOs rather than state-based agencies, says the State of World Population study. The study realised that Bangladesh has progressed in terms of NGOs for human rights movement and established hotlines and telephone services at rural levels to guide and aid people.

The south-west border is the safest route for illegal trafficking of women and children. However, illegal trafficking of manpower complying with the legal formalities is not much behind the by-road system. A section of recruiting agencies, travel agencies and brokers are closely involved with the whole mechanism of illegal trafficking through legal means.

Sources inform New Age that the government has sufficient involvement toward facilitating the business through negligence if not participation. ‘The state run, Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training and the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment can strengthen the migration process through rigid formalities. Brokers or officers at the District Manpower Offices can be acknowledged with identification cards and enlisted with every police station for verification and reliability,’ explains a migration expert.

This article was first published in New Age Xtra on October 06, 2006 


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