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What drives Bangladeshis to the perilous Mediterranean route to reach Europe?

  • Published at 11:06 pm July 28th, 2021
Bangladeshis among migrants rescued in Mediterranean
File photo: Surviving migrants are brought aboard Irish and Italian Navy life-boats in the area where their wooden boat capsized and sank off the coast of Libya on August 5, 2015 Reuters

Of 44,093 who crossed the sea route this year, highest 3,332 were from Bangladesh

Bangladesh is deeply troubled by the fact that it now sits atop a list of source countries from where people have been mostly enticed to migrate illegally to Europe through a perilous Mediterranean Sea route.

A vast majority of them – either victims of trafficking or irregular migration – end up landing in detentions or, in worst case scenarios, perish in the sea, while the relatively fortunate ones somehow manage to enter European countries.   

As Bangladesh prepares like any other nation to observe "World Day Against Trafficking in Persons" on Friday with a firm resolve to combat human trafficking and illegal migration, statistics showing an increasing number of its citizens falling into the trap appear mind boggling.

Bangladeshis constitute 14.5% (3,332 persons), the highest number among the 47,425 refugees and migrants reaching Italy, Greece, Spain, Cyprus and Malta, mostly through sea routes this year (up until July 26). 


Also Read - Six Bangladeshis die trying to enter Italy through the Mediterranean


UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, recorded 937 deaths this year in the Mediterranean sea, many of them Bangladeshis. 

According to the  International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM), 4,510 irregular Bangladeshi nationals arrived by sea and by land in Europe, entering Italy, Malta, Spain or Greece in 2020. Additionally, 8,844 Bangladeshi nationals were tracked while transiting through the Western Balkan countries during the same year.  

“We’re deeply concerned at the developments on the Libya-Tunisia Mediterranean Coast. Traffickers allure our people by the promise of good jobs in Europe,” Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen said on Wednesday.

Speaking in a zoom discussion, organized on the eve of World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, the foreign secretary said in recent months Bangladesh had brought back many victims of trafficking and illegal migration from countries like Libya, Tunisia, Malta and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He did not give any statistics, though, of the repatriated Bangladeshi trafficking victims.

Most participants at the virtual meeting said a Covid-19 induced worsening poverty situation must have some links with people’s desperation to get foreign jobs, but Masud Bin Momen differed with that view.

The foreign secretary said: “Poverty is not a driver; we’ve reduced poverty in Bangladesh over the past several years. There must be other drivers [of such an outflow of people].” 


Also Read - 49 Bangladeshi migrants rescued from Mediterranean


Shahidul Haque, a former foreign secretary, who now works as a policy advisor of the International Organization of Migration (IOM), said it was scary how people from some districts in Bangladesh were taking the dangerous routes of illegal migration. He pleaded: “Our business-as-usual action will not be able to make much difference in combating trafficking as the traffickers are 10 steps ahead of us.”

UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Siobhan Mullally; UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh, Mia Seppo; and Deputy US Ambassador to Bangladesh, JoAnne Wagner also spoke, among others, at the webinar, which was organized by Bangladesh United Nations Network on Migration. 

Siobhan Mullally expressed caution against heightened risks of exploitation as people were getting more vulnerable during pandemic. “Political will and obligation to due diligence are needed to combat the trafficking.”

From Andaman Crisis to Mediterranean Crisis

In the spring of 2015, irregular maritime migration across the Bay of Bengal entered a period of crisis, with a wave of migrants and refugees, mostly from Bangladesh and Myanmar, crossing or attempting to cross en route to Southeast Asia. 

The number of maritime migrants on this route tripled between 2012 and 2014. By 2015, newspapers in Bangladesh as well as in Thailand, Malaysia and India were carrying a volley of reports on how smugglers were holding migrants to ransom to extort higher fees; how they were abandoning migrant-filled vessels at sea when the Royal Thai Government cracked down on the smuggling and the dreadful discovery of mass graves of an upwards of 1,000 — who had died of starvation, dehydration or violence aboard boats since 2014. 

The economic dynamism of Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand attracted migrants from around the Bay of Bengal, Andaman Sea and the Straits of Malacca (BAM) region. In the first ten days of May 2015, as a humanitarian crisis surrounding migrant boats in the BAM region mounted, the countries of the region, global safe migration actors, media, activists – all started working together to deal with the crisis.  

In subsequent months, Bangladesh rounded up hundreds of local traffickers and their sidekicks, who used to lure and facilitate the dangerous sea routes, and filed several hundred cases against the perpetrators of the crime.

As the new crisis of illegal migration through Mediterranean Sea route now emerges and has  been there for quite some time, stakeholders urged the government and its judicial apparatus to act quickly so that accused traffickers get convictions sooner rather than later.


Also Read - UN: Mediterranean migrant death toll around 970 this year


At the discussion too, participants took note of the government’s much-delayed action of setting up tribunals dedicated to deal with trafficking cases in divisional headquarters only in March last year and said the delivery of justice had to be faster.

Officials concerned acknowledged that the case disposal rate was  still very slow and, on many occasions, people detained got off the hook in the absence of witnesses’ and victims’ testimonies. Victims and witnesses in trafficking cases, in particular, suffer from insecurity in giving testimonies due to a lack of sufficient witness protection in Bangladesh.

According to the United Nations, of all victims of trafficking worldwide, half are trafficked for sexual exploitation, and 38% others are subjected to forced labour. The UN finds that female victims continue to be the primary targets as women make up 46% and girls 19% of all victims of trafficking.

This year’s theme puts victims of human trafficking at the centre of the campaign and will highlight the importance of listening to and learning from survivors of human trafficking.

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