By: Gerelyn Terzo
COVID-19 has had a destructive effect on the migrant community, and Bangladeshi workers have been among the hardest hit. Bangladesh’s immigrant community is one of the largest in the world, with close to 8 million of its 160 million population having emigrated to other countries. Bangladesh is surpassed only by India, Mexico, China, Russia and Syria for its large immigrant population, according to the United Nations.
Now many of those migrants are repatriating back to Bangladesh amid a severe disruption to their income coupled with a bleak employment outlook overseas due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pace of migrants returning to Bangladesh ramped up in September, with close to 50,000 migrants returning home between Aug. 22 and mid-September.
Nearly 1.3 million Bangladeshi migrants have fled more than two dozen host countries and returned home since April, most of whom were living in the Middle East. By way of comparison, fewer than 65,000 Bangladeshi migrants returned back to their home country in 2019.
Many of the returning migrants were either left unemployed or were sent home by their employer for a lack of opportunity due to COVID. Of those who fall in the latter camp, many were promised work when things return to normal. Meanwhile, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed stated that these migrant workers are “frontline contributors to the economies of their host countries.”
Of those who have returned, the top-three regional breakdown is as follows:
- More than 36,500 from the UAE
- More than 30,500 from Saudi Arabia
- Nearly 11,000 from Qatar
Source: Migration Policy Institute
When the pandemic hit, Bangladeshi migrants who were already working jobs that pay low wages took a significant hit to their income or lost their jobs altogether, leaving them in a precarious financial situation. Bangladesh sent some funds to its citizens working abroad but it wasn’t nearly enough. In addition to a lack of work, Bangladeshi migrants are also dealing with the expiration of their visas, which is only compounding the problem.
A Bangladeshi migrant by the name of Punam Bhuiyan was spotlighted by the Dhaka Tribune. He has been working overseas in Saudi Arabia for nearly a decade now. He was left unemployed in the spring as a result of the pandemic and while he managed to find some work since then, he has remained underemployed. Making matters worse, his work permit is now expired.
He explained that he needs SR 15,000 in order to renew his work permit for 12 months, money that will deplete his account, and is more than he will earn in one year. He said his employer is responsible for renewing it, but since they won’t, he intends to return to Bangladesh because he’s out of options.
Another Bangladeshi migrant is suffering a similarly difficult fate. Masudul Isam Shuvo, who is from Bangladesh’s Dinajpur district, migrated to Saudi Arabia less than a year ago. He invested in a work visa, which he paid for after selling his land. But the visa carried with it no guarantee of a job when he got there. Shuvo has been unable to find work since he arrived. Instead of sending remittances back home, he is receiving money transfers from his family just to survive. Shuvo also plans to return to Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, another Bangladeshi migrant working for a construction company hasn’t received his paycheck in months even though he’s been working throughout the pandemic. He is among some 15,000 Bangladeshi migrants working for this company, thousands of whom are being sent home by the employer as travel resumes.
For those Bangladeshi migrants who are stuck, the bitter winter months are right around the corner. There are calls for swifter action to provide accommodations for migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina, more directly in Velika Kladuša. Peter Van der Auweraert, Western Balkans Coordinator and Bosnia and Herzegovina Representative at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) based in Sarajevo, pointed out that Bangladeshi migrants have resorted to makeshift camps there amid a lack of proper accommodations.
Meanwhile, the IOM for Bangladesh indicated that more than 160 migrants have returned back home via a humanitarian flight from Libya, nearly a dozen of whom were survivors of a Mizdah attack. The shooting attack, which happened in May, took place in a smuggling warehouse where more than two dozen migrants were killed, many of whom were Bangladeshis. The IOM had already been working with the government to bolster the capacity of the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport to receive migrants with COVID symptoms.
Trend Goes Both Ways
The trend is working both ways, with Saudi Arabia having reissued the visas of more than 25,000 Bangladeshi workers who after returning home to their host country were unable to find work. As many as 6,000 Bangladeshi migrants have already made the trip from their home country back to the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has also given the green light to Biman Bangladesh Airlines to restart flights to the country.
In fiscal 2019-2020, Bangladeshi migrants sent more than $18 billion in remittance payments back home, with service providers facilitating the money transfers. It was a banner year, with $714 billion in money transfers sent globally in 2019, which was a new record. This year, however, it is a much gloomier situation, with The World Bank calling for a 20% decline in remittances to low and middle-income countries as a result of lockdown measures and travel bans that were implemented as a result of COVID-19.
In the first half of 2020, remittances to Bangladesh suffered a decline of 1.4% vs. year-ago levels, according to Pew Research. Much of the drop occurred in April, when COVID was still in full force, before experiencing a rebound in June.
Bangladesh did receive some good news in September when the economy was buoyed by a rebounding garment sector. Apparel is the country’s biggest export market and demand has been strengthening, stemming from the US and other major countries for holiday orders. The economy is projected to grow at 6.8% for the fiscal year ending in June if the current trends remain intact.
Gerelyn Terzo is a staff writer at Sharemoney, a money remittance service that is passionate about improving the lives of immigrants. The granddaughter of an Italian immigrant from the town of Teora whose first steps in the U.S. were on Ellis Island, Gerelyn resides in New Jersey.