DhakaTribune
Sunday December 17, 2017 06:13 AM

Escape to the Promised Land

  • Published at 07:09 PM August 03, 2017
  • Last updated at 06:15 PM August 09, 2017
Escape to the Promised Land

Why Bangladeshis are risking everything to get to Europe

Jillur Rahaman bet all he had, and lost, for a simple dream: a ‘paka’ house, made of bricks and concrete. The plan was to work abroad for a number of years, and return to his wife and two children with enough money to build it.

He had sold all of his land and used up his savings to pay an agent 5.5 lac taka for his passage to Libya. After flying to Khartoum, Sudan, on a 15-day tourist visa, he was passed from agent to dubious agent on a road journey to Libya through the Sahara.

From Libya, he had to gather $500 to pay for a passage across the Mediterranean to Italy on an inflatable rubber dinghy crammed with people. Had things gone according to plan, Italy would throw open the doors to Europe and prosperity.

Italy has been overwhelmed with migrants arriving at its shores from across the Mediterranean. More than 82,000 have arrived so far this year. Most European Union nations have refused Italy’s appeal to accept their share of immigrants, preferring to pressure North African states to take them back. Some EU leaders have advocated accepting only those fleeing war and persecution, and turning back those seeking economic opportunity.

Bangladeshis make up the second largest nationality among the cross-Mediterranean migrants entering Italy and represent the “economic migrants.”

If economic growth is any indication, Bangladesh should be flourishing with opportunity. Bangladesh has achieved a sustained growth rate of over 6 per cent since 2000. Then why are people so desperate as to attempt the most lethal sea voyage in the world to escape to Europe?

“I would not say that migration is due to our economy being particularly weak,” says Dr. Siddiqui. “Our overall political and socioeconomic reality is that from within the system, there is no way to reach the top. You have to have political connections.”

‘Everyone has a dream of going abroad’

Jillur’s village, Manda is some 10 km from Shariatpur town.The paved road passesat a distance from the village.A 5-foot road leading in is only now being constructed.

Amuddy trail windsthrough paddy fields,ponds and corrugated iron houses.School children dodge the puddles and leave us far behind.

Very few of them will get beyond secondary education, says Kamal Sheikh, a resident of Manda.The nearest college is several kilometresaway, and expensive to attend.

Kamalcomments on the fewtwo-story housesas we pass them.Mostbelong to families with members living abroad.

The same is for larger businesses. “This chicken farm is owned by three partners, one of whom lives abroad.” says Kamal. “They can invest because they have the means.”

But Kamal, an agricultural labourer, canjust about scrape up day-to-day expenses for his family of three. With limited cash available, he is hesitant to invest in livestock or poultry.

A World Bank study on rural poverty in Bangladesh indicates that the economic success of migrant workers has been crucial for drastic and long-lasting social mobility. Rural householdswho moved out of extreme poverty to incomes above 1.5 times the poverty level between 2000 and 2008 said migrant family members contributed most of the additional income.

Income from trade, business and services contributedmodestly to increases in income, and did not prevent them from sliding back into poverty.

“In our district just about every household has people who have attempted to go abroad,” says Jillur.“Most of them try for Italy. Saudi and Dubai are also popular.”

“If you can make it to Europe, then you’re pretty much settled,” says Kamal. Ten years ago Kamal sold all his land to get to Libya with a placement as an office helper. He sent between Tk.12,000 and 15,000 home every month until the civil war that would overthrow Gaddafi broke out.

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Kamal found himself trapped in a lawless state. At one point he was kidnapped and thrown in a freight container with no windows. His kidnappers gave him a cell phone to procure his own ransom, and a 250ml bottle of water. For three days he suffocated in the heat with nothing else to eat or drink.

After getting free, Kamal attempted to flee to Italy by boat but got arrested off the coast of Malta and was voluntarily repatriated. “We paid off some family debts. Most of the money I sent back went into day-to-day expenses. On the whole, it would have been better not to have gone at all.”

Presently we are joined by a Kamal’s friend and a random passer-by, both of whom have migration stories to share.

Neither hunger nor depravity drovethempeople to emigrate. But Manda offered little opportunity to change the circumstances they were born into. Their families would only ever have better homes or a higher education if they went abroad.

This might be because economic growth has been largely concentrated in urban centres. Even so,most of those seeking to enter Europe are from semi-urban backgrounds.

Jillur, for example, broke out of his rural economy by obtaining a driver’s license and finding employment with the founders of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) in Dhaka. But to fulfil his aspirations, he would have to to use his driver’s license to get work abroad.

“I applied to go to Algeria, then Qatar, then Malaysia,” says Jillur. “None of them worked. After trying and failing for over two years I got frustrated.” He settled on the illegal route to Italy.

“Everyone has a dream of going abroad,” says Dr. Tasneem Siddiqui founder and director of RMMRU, “They feel that it will result in a holistic change, [a promotion in] class, which as it is, is not possible in Bangladesh.”

His second childwas born just before he left. Jillur was earning about Tk.12,000 per month at the time. If he wanted to give his new born daughter a different life, he had no choice.

“Here, at the very best, I could earn Tk.20,000 to 30,000 a month,” says Jillur. “How many years would it take to save enough to even begin to build a house with that? [In France], once I get citizenship, earning more than one lac taka a month is no big deal for a person like me.”

The chances of that kind of success are slim. Thousands of deaths are recorded each year in the Mediterranean, and many more go unreported. Many irregular migrants are apprehended by Libyan forces before they can reach Italian waters.

“It’s a risky game,” says Dr.Siddiqui. “But for some people, it has worked out very well.” Dr. Siddiqui says she met a Bangladeshi migrant who earned the equivalent of three lac taka a month in 2010 doing heavy labour work.But most people have to strugglefor years before they can establish themselves and start sending money back home.

Opportunities for the well-connected

Sadmanur Rahman’s oldest brother went to the UK in 2002, and easily found irregular work at a restaurant. He would send Tk.40,000 to50,000 back home every month after comfortably meeting his expenses, and even putting away some savings.

Over the years, the family paid off their loans, dug a pond (for fish farming), got one son married and bought land adjacent to their village home in Kulaura in Moulvibazar. The house itself, formerly a four-bedroom home with one bathroom, was expanded so that it now has 10 rooms and four bathrooms.

Despite the added income, Sadman feels that his prospects in Bangladesh are bleak.

“To get a [government] job [in Bangladesh] you have to pay a bribe. You have to have a ‘big brother’ who will recommend you for a post.” The bachelor’s degree he just completed thus holds little value.

Sadman says his fellow graduates have the same problem. “My peer who has a 4/4 average, is earning in France, he has given up studying altogether.”

Studies show that a relatively small portion of income from migrant family members are invested in business. Political corruption is a major deterrent. “Before starting anything locally one has to think, do I have any political support?,” says Sadman.“Otherwise you have to pay bribes to local political leaders and bureaucrats until there’s nothing left.”

“I would not say that migration is due to our economy being particularly weak,” says Dr. Siddiqui. “Our overall political and socioeconomic reality is that from within the system, there is no way to reach the top. You have to have political connections.”

Which leaves those who don’t have any such connections, like Jillur, Sadman, and Kamal, short of options.

Tough luck

Jillur’s upbeat demeanour belies his enormous disappointment.

He says he knew well what the risks were, having had many friends who had attempted to get to Europe and a few who had succeeded.

“Everyone has to die someday. This way if they succeed, they become heroes; if they die, they become martyrs.”

“The agents always tell you that it’s going to be very comfortable. They told me an air-conditioned bus would take me across the desert.”

Instead, for three days he was crammed with over a hundred people from Bangladesh and various African countries in the back of a truck. “There was one person beneath me and another person on my lap. It was difficult to breathe.” With the sun beating down, two Bengalis and two North Africans died of heat and exhaustion on that trip.

Upon entering Libya, Jillur found himself trapped in a lawless country embroiled in civil strife between countless armed factions. “Twelve and 13-year-old kids roam around with guns. There is no justice if they kill you.” Friends he made were abducted by armed factions or miscreants seeking ransoms.

Finding work in Libya was the easy part. “There’s a lot of work to be done,” says Jillur. “But you never knew if and when you were going to get paid.”

“There is no functional justice system so there was nothing we could do if we didn’t get paid.”

Eventually Jillur gathered up enough money to pay for his passage to Italy. But he lost it all in a robbery. Attackers kicked in the door to his apartment and sprayed it with bullets. “If we had not been lying down, we should surely have been shot. The walls were completely pockmarked.” Then they looted the apartment and took everything.

Afraid and penniless, Jillur called his former employer who lent him 1.5 lac to get on a plane back to Bangladesh.

Jillur now works for his former employer for a better wage than he had before. He supports his wife and two children, and chips away slowly at his debt.

“I can tell you my story, but nobody will understand my pain.” says Jillur, “To this day, I think about my debt before buying fish. I often forego meat for daal or spinach.”

“My dream house has remained a dream.”

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