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Dhaka Tribune

Struggles of migrant workers: The pleasures and perils of social media

This is the last of an 11-part series on the challenges faced by migrant workers

Update : 26 Mar 2024, 11:13 AM

Expatriate Bangladeshis face a myriad of challenges as they navigate life in foreign lands. Social media platforms and instant messaging apps have bridged the gap between them and their loved ones back home, but these platforms are also a source of distress as they have become breeding grounds for criminal activities.

The story of Rakibul Islam from Rajshahi epitomizes the bittersweet reality of expatriate life. Departing for Dubai in 2017, Rakibul left behind his pregnant wife, embarking on a journey that would sever physical ties with his family for years. Despite daily virtual interactions through social media, Rakibul's longing to hold his child remains unfulfilled. His seven-year-old son, whom he has never touched, attends school while Rakibul finds solace in remote communication, a surrogate for physical presence. While social media offers a semblance of connection, it also amplifies the ache of separation.

Conversely, Habiba Khatun (pseudonym), an expatriate in Saudi Arabia, encountered the dark side of social media. Engaging in audio-video calls with a charming young man named Nabin Talukdar, she unwittingly shared personal moments and photographs. Talukdar's affable demeanor concealed his nefarious intentions as he extorted money from Habiba, threatening to expose her private images. Despite sending significant sums abroad, Habiba's ordeal ended only with the intervention of law enforcement, underscoring the perilous pitfalls of online interactions for expatriates.

The challenges faced by Rakibul and Habiba are emblematic of a broader phenomenon affecting thousands of expatriates daily. A sense of displacement and uncertainty haunts those who venture abroad, fostering a pervasive fear of the unknown. For many, social media serves as a lifeline, offering a semblance of normalcy amidst the turmoil of expatriate life. Yet this digital sanctuary is tainted by the spectre of exploitation and fraud, particularly targeting vulnerable women migrant workers.

According to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment, and Training (BMET), the number of Bangladeshi migrant workers exceeds 14.8 million, including 1,166,000 women contributing to the global workforce. Countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar attract a significant number of female workers, underscoring their indispensable role in both supporting their families and bolstering the nation's economy.

Remittances sent by expatriate Bangladeshis in 2023 amounted to a staggering Tk2,192 crore, a testament to their unwavering dedication to their families and homeland. Despite the economic contributions, the perils of social media exploitation persist, prompting calls for heightened awareness and vigilance.

Recent crackdowns by law enforcement agencies reveal the extent of criminal networks preying on expatriates through social media platforms. Dhaka Metropolitan Police's arrest of individuals involved in defrauding women migrant workers underscores the urgency of addressing cybercrime targeting vulnerable populations. Mohammad Haroon Or Rashid, Additional Commissioner of Police, highlights the sophisticated tactics employed by criminal syndicates, exploiting vulnerabilities in popular applications like IMO to perpetrate fraud.

A study conducted by the Association for Social Development (ASD) illuminates the prevalence of social media-related issues among expatriate women. Despite relying on platforms like IMO for communication, a significant portion has fallen victim to fraud and exploitation. 

Farida Yasmin, advisor of the Bangladesh Migrant Workers Association, stressed the indispensable role of social media in alleviating loneliness among expatriates, yet warns of the dangers posed by malicious actors.

“Wherever women live in the context of our country, they cannot live without family. If there is no contact with the family, their morale breaks down. In this context, the use of social media really helps them. A group of criminals is taking advantage of this. They demand money by threatening to make their (women’s) private moments go viral. In this regard, various government initiatives are necessary to make expatriate women workers aware,” she said.

In response to mounting concerns, law enforcement authorities are stepping up efforts to combat cybercrime and protect expatriate communities. Additional Police Commissioner Atiqul Islam underscores the establishment of dedicated cybercrime cells and expatriate welfare desks to address grievances promptly. 

 "Instructions have been given to activate a cybercrime cell in every district. There is also a separate hotline number for expatriates. There are also expatriate welfare desks at the district level. We are very conscious about the safety of women. If someone complains, action is taken quickly," he said.

Sayeed Al-Zaman, Associate Professor at Jahangirnagar University, advocates comprehensive initiatives to raise awareness among expatriates, mitigating the risks associated with online interactions.

“Migrant workers are victims of cybercrime for various reasons. They are less aware of this; mentally they are very weak in the diaspora. Criminals are taking advantage of this. Expatriate women are not the only victims of blackmail. They are also victims of cyberbullying. They feel very helpless. In this regard, the government should take more initiatives to make them aware,” he added.

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