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Wednesday, 21 June, 2000, 15:02 GMT 16:02 UK
Bangladeshi migrants' broken dreams
Queuing up for visas outside the Saudi Arabian embassy
Many young men leave for better prospects overseas
By David Chazan in Dhaka

Manpower is one of Bangladesh's biggest exports.

At least a quarter of a million Bangladeshi workers go abroad each year.

The money they send home to support their families is vital for the economy of one of the world's poorest and most densely populated countries.

When I asked for the money back, I was threatened and beaten

Shahadat Hossain
Before going abroad, many migrants pay substantial amounts to recruiting agencies which arrange jobs and visas for them.

To raise the money, their families often sell their land.

But some workers find no job waiting for them when they reach their destination, while others never manage to leave at all.

Shahadat Hossain says he paid nearly $2,500 to a recruiting agency which promised him a job in the Gulf.

That is a small fortune for a farm labourer in Bangladesh.

His family raised the money by selling the land where they grew rice and vegetables.

Shahadat Hossain
Shahadat Hossain: No job despite paying $2,500
"They never found a job for me. They kept me waiting for months, and when I asked for the money back, I was threatened and beaten," he says.

Shahadat's family had been counting on him to find work overseas and send them money.

Instead, times are harder than ever, now that they are landless.

Selling all they own

It is a common enough plight in Bangladeshi villages - poor families, who have sold everything they owned for a dream of a better life.

Sohrab Hossain took me to see the land he says he sold to go to Malaysia.

Bangladeshi woman in Dhaka
Trying to escape grinding poverty
The job he was promised there never materialised.

Instead, he found work in a clothing factory at what he says were starvation wages.

"I couldn't send any money home, and they took away my passport. Eventually I ran away after they refused to let me go to a doctor when I injured my hand," he says.

In Gazipura village, and in countless others like it, there are too many mouths to feed and not enough work on the land for everyone.

Like many others, Shahadat and Sohrab were desperate, so they were easy prey for unscrupulous businessmen.

Little protection

The government says it does what it can to protect migrant workers.

"Whenever they're bringing this to the knowledge of the government, they're getting remedy," says Wilfred Rodrigues of the Ministry of Labour.

if we send any guy overseas, he must go with a job

Recruiting agent Reaz-ul-Islam
"Whenever they are reported, we take definite action," he adds.

The problem is that many cases do go unreported.

Manpower is big business. But not all manpower agencies are unscrupulous.

Reaz-ul-Islam, who owns one agency says cases like Shahadat's and Sohrab's are rare.

"I would basically refute the allegation because as a recruiting agent, we're not allowed to send any worker without any employment," he says.

"The basic rule is very plain, that if we send any guy overseas, he must go with a job," he says.


Outside the Saudi embassy, young men queue for visas.

But how many workers like these will discover that no job has been organised for them when they reach their destination?

Recruitment agency in Dhaka
Manpower agencies are paid substantial sums
"There are no reliable data on the scale of the problem. We know that it happens because there are a lot of cases that we know about," Armand Rousselot of the International Organisation for Migration.

"Labour migrants are considered as a trade commodity and the issues of protection and rights come usually second," he says.

Saiful Haque is a former migrant worker who now heads an association which looks after those who have returned.

He is lobbying to the government to ratify a United Nations convention for the protection of rights of migrant workers and their families.

Hundreds of young men leave Dhaka every day, mainly to work in the Gulf.

Driven by despair and deprivation, the exodus continues. But few of those leaving can be sure of what awaits them at the other end.

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See also:

20 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Chinese gangs' cruel trade
17 Mar 00 | South Asia
Fighting poverty in Bangladesh
11 Oct 99 | South Asia
Bangladesh running out of space
01 Jul 99 | World population
Bangladesh struggles to cope
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