The hard-earned money sent home by millions of migrant workers is one of the biggest sources of foreign currency for Bangladesh. Expatriate workers remitted around $14.93 billion last year.
As hundreds of thousands leave the country every year to try their luck, thousands also return, albeit in coffins and body bags.
Bodies of 33,112 migrant workers have been received between 2005 and November this year, government figures show. But the number of deaths is believed to be higher as many workers are buried abroad.
A large number of these deaths are attributed to heart attacks and stroke. Many of the victims are young.
As many as 11.39 million Bangladeshis have migrated between 1976 and 2017, according to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET).
Dhaka University’s international Relations Professor CR Abrar pointed out that everyone had to take extensive medical tests before they were permitted to work abroad.
“This issue cannot be taken lightly,” he said. “We need to investigate and uncover the reasons why they are dying while working abroad even though they were medically fit before leaving the country.”
Brac’s Migration Head Shariful Islam Hasan claimed that adverse working environment, excessive workload, poor living conditions, heart attack and stroke caused by mental stress were behind 94% of the migrant deaths.
Some others are killed in accidents, commit suicide or are murdered, he added citing data he gathered when working as a reporter.
In the first 11 months of this year, 3,154 bodies of migrant workers were received, according to Wage Earners Welfare Board (WEWB) of Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment.
Shariful claimed that at least eight to 10 bodies were sent to Bangladesh daily. Many workers have been buried abroad after their deaths.
One of the unfortunate victims was twenty-six-year-old Delwar Hossain, who went to Malaysia in 2013 to work at a palm oil farm. His employer claimed that he had died of a heart attack on January 29 this year.
The pictures provided by Delwar’s employer showed his body lying under the bed.
His family members alleged that he had been murdered.
“He had some problems with a coworker. The foreman had beaten him several times after refusing to work extra hours. They did not let him eat or sleep properly,” his younger brother Abul Kalam Azad told the Dhaka Tribune.
The medical issues
Before going abroad, a person needs to undergo many medical tests to determine whether he or she is suffering from a list of communicable and non-communicable diseases.
Gulf Approved Medical Centers Association said an aspirant migrant worker needs to be tested for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B, HCV, malaria, tuberculosis, congestive heart failure, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, psychiatric diseases, neurological disorders and physical disabilities, among others.
“Sometimes the employers claim their workers had committed suicide or mention heart failure or stroke as the cause of death to avoid paying compensation,” Prof Abrar noted. “When a family receives the body of loved ones it is normal that they do not investigate further. Last rites get the top priority.”
Brac official Shariful emphasised ensuring the rights of the migrant workers, pointing out how the overseas employers violated labour law.
The migrant workers are easily exploited, he said. They are under pressure to pay back loans they had taken before travelling abroad and the employers take advantage of their desperate mental state to force them to work extra hours with little pay.
Shafiqul Islam, director of Wage Earners Welfare Board, said the migrant workers could inform the complaint cell.
“When they inform us about the violence they face, we immediately inform our embassy or the concerned country to look into the matter and rescue our worker,” he said.
Shafiqul said the government provided Tk35,000 to families of each dead worker when they receive the body in Dhaka. If the worker was legal, the family gets another Tk3 lakh.
WEWB Assistant Director (Information and Public Relations) Zahid Anwar said that if family members of a deceased expatriate express doubt about the cause of death and apply for re-autopsy, the board forwards their plea to the concerned Bangladeshi embassy.
"But the family will have to apply before the body of the deceased arrives in Bangladesh. If the body reaches home, then the government of the employer country may reject the application," said Zahid.
He, however, did not clarify if Bangladesh accepts, without contest, the cause of death as stated by the employer or what it does if the family’s claim contradicts that of the stated cause. Shafiqul also did not say anything about how the government ascertains the cause of death of migrant workers in cases such as that of Delwar.
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Fifteen Bangladeshi migrants who were held captive by Sunni militants in war-torn Iraq for 24 days finally returned home on July 19, 2014 Rajib Dhar/Dhaka Tribune
Delay in repatriating bodies
It takes quite some time for the body of a migrant worker to be sent home, notably from Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh’s largest manpower export market.
Prof CR Abrar pointed out that the time needed depended on the official processes of different countries.
“Every country has different procedures and documentation processes. The delay in sending back bodies are probably because of communication gap or lack of proper documentation, or lack of coordination,” Abrar said. “Sending back the bodies should get the top priority at our missions.”
WEWB Director Shafiqul said whenever they receive the news of a migrant worker’s death, they first take a written statement from the family on whether or not they want the body.
“If they do, we forward the papers to the concerned embassy to take care of the repatriation process,” he said.
Shafiqul said the process was lengthy in Saudi Arabia. “They conduct several inquiries to determine the cause of deaths. Sometimes it takes between two weeks and six months and sometimes more. It takes more time if it is a suicide case or accident death,” he added.