What causes people to take such a desperate decision?
The news of drowning in the Mediterranean of about 40 to 60 Bangladeshis recently appeared in a wide swath of the national and international press. They were reportedly illegal migrants who took off from Libya in a crammed boat that sank on the way to the European coast.
Sinking of boats or ships carrying illegal migrants in the Mediterranean is not startling news. What is startling this time is that this boat carried a cargo of humans that came from a single country -- Bangladesh.
The European coastline stretching from Italy to Greece in the Mediterranean has witnessed thousands of illegals crossing from across the other side in the past. The migrants mostly came from post-conflict countries in Africa. To this list were added migrants from countries newly launched into conflict in the Middle East. These migrants accepted death-defying dangers in vessels of all descriptions, starting from cargo ships to tramp steamers to even rubber rafts.
But they had only one goal: To reach the safety of European countries and seek asylum.
It is easy to understand why people would like to leave war-torn countries and seek asylum in safer places. It is also easy to empathize with people from poverty-stricken countries who seek a better life for themselves in more affluent countries. Therefore, it is also easy to comprehend why these people would adopt desperate ways to attain their goals.
What is not very easy to see is why this group would include people from relatively “politically stable” countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan. Is it so difficult to live in their countries that they have to take such measures to leave their country for unknown territories?
Not too long ago, a similar news of desperate Bangladeshis getting trapped in a steamer in Bay of Bengal trying to reach Malaysia got attention because they were stranded at sea. Although many among them were Rohingya refugees, it is the Bangladeshi illegal migrants that got attention because of their number and state of health.
It was stated in a UNHCR report in 2016 that about 34,000 illegals cross the Southeast Asian seas in smuggler boats and fishing vessels yearly, a great majority of whom are Bangladeshis. Many do not make it to their destinations in Malaysia or Thailand.
But this is about those migrants or asylum seekers who get reported after a tragedy. What about the others? There are hundreds of such people who blend with other African migrants and undertake these perilous journeys for the shores of Europe or the Americas. Those who make it apply for asylum or live in sub-human conditions in crime-infested quarters of these countries, hoping that some day, they will be able to surface as lawful residents. In any case, for the great majority of these death-defying migrants, life is never normal, even if they can avoid drowning.
Unfortunately, the majority of these voluntary refugees are young people; they are not peasants who left farming in search of better occupations. They are high school-educated, many with some college education. I know, because I have met many such young people in Italy, Spain, and Portugal who had succeeded in their adventurous journeys across the seas.
What is more tragic is that these youths paid heavily for their perilous and sometimes fatal journeys to human smugglers, often spending their entire savings or selling whatever assets their parents could provide. Why do they do this?
While for some of these death-defying asylum seekers, the driver is the lure of earning “phenomenal” amounts of money (because they have been assured of this by the smugglers), for the majority of the migrants, it is unemployment. It is not uncommon in rural Bangladesh that a parent, frustrated by the continued unemployment of their children, would seek help to transport them out of the country.
I have come across instances where educated parents have approached “agents” who promise to send their wards abroad in consideration of hefty payments. They have never questioned the means or legality of the “shipping” arrangement of their wards. When demands are that many, human smugglers oblige.
We flatter ourselves by gloating over our economic miracle. Our GDP quadrupling in the last 15 years. Our growth rate being consistently ahead of neighbouring countries. Our rate of literacy growing ahead of expectation. The number of universities growing by leaps and bounds.
Yet, the rate of unemployment of educated youth is high (as high as 40% for college graduates according to a BBC report). But our planners and leaders seem to be least bothered by the alarming consequences of such unemployment.
According to a 2016 World Bank report, the overall youth unemployment rate is over 12%, with a much higher rate for college graduates. This figure is further enhanced every year, as more and more people enter the job market. And this demand for jobs cannot be met with the kind of education and skills that the job-seekers come out with.
Frustrated, they blame their country and leave for foreign shores, not realizing that the education that failed them to get a job in their own country will not get them any in another country. They are not impelled by fear of losing their lives in their country. They are impelled by a lack of suitable employment.
Our leaders need to acknowledge these incidents as a crisis -- one that has to be managed with policy and planning in education. We have allowed unabated growth in higher education without paying attention to the quality and content of this education. Our youths are trained in general education, not in skills that help agro-farming, manufacturing, technology, or health services.
There are enormous job opportunities in many sectors that do not require university degrees. It only needs introducing a curriculum in our high schools and colleges which will equip our youth with proper skills instead of handing out empty diplomas.
It is not a tall order to train our youth for jobs within the country, and not send them overseas on death-defying journeys.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.