Home in body bags - calls for action as Bangladesh migrant deaths spike

by Naimul Karim | @Naimonthefield | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 21 January 2019 16:38 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: An Asian labourer climbs a ladder as he works at the construction site of a building in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia August 4, 2016. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

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At least 3,793 Bangladeshis have died while working abroad last year, the highest annual toll since 2005

By Naimul Karim

DHAKA, Jan 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Mousumi Akter left her home in rural Bangladesh in 2017 and travelled 5,000 kilometres (3,000 miles) to work as a maid in Jordan to support her struggling family. In less than two years, she was dead.

The young woman was one of 3,793 Bangladeshis who died while working abroad last year, according to newly released government data, the highest annual toll since 2005.

Many poor Bangladeshi families depend on remittances from migrant workers to survive, but as the toll rises, more and more are demanding to know why so many people are coming back in body bags.

"Medical reports from Jordan say that she died due to a stroke," Akter's uncle Mohammad Imran Khan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"But we noticed black marks on her body once it arrived, which suggested to us that she was tortured. Also, how can she suffer from a stroke? She was only 20."

Khan said the government should have conducted a second autopsy to determine the true cause of his niece's death - a procedure the family could not afford to pay for.

"Any kind of dead body that returns home should have a second autopsy," he said.

They are not the only family with doubts. Relatives of Bilal Hossain, who was 23 when he died, were initially told he had suffered a stroke.

They later learned through his roommates in Saudi Arabia, that he was killed by an electric shock suffered while cleaning up water on a public street.

Data from the Wage Earners' Welfare Board, a government agency, show stroke was the official cause of more than half the deaths of Bangladeshi workers overseas in November and December.

POOR CONDITIONS

The government points out that the number of Bangladeshis taking up jobs abroad is also rising - official data show more than a million Bangladeshis got jobs abroad in 2017, the highest number ever recorded.

But experts said the growing number of dead reflected the poor treatment of many migrant workers.

"Stress plays a big role," said C.R. Abrar, professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka.

"Even before going there, they are having to spend so much. They have no idea about the pain they are about to go through... We need more protective measures, because stress-related issues are ignored."

On Sunday about 100 Bangladeshi workers, most of them women, returned from Saudi Arabia, where BRAC - a charity that provides counselling to returning migrants - said they had faced physical and mental abuse.

Some were so seriously hurt they were hospitalised on their return, said BRAC.

The head of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program, a research organisation that specialises in migrant issues, said the high cost of going abroad and the poor conditions workers had to endure were key factors behind the rising toll.

"Workers die because of a number of reasons. For one, they work in poor conditions," said Shakirul Islam.

"Secondly, they have to pay a high migration cost in order to get a visa to go work there. This is accomplished through loans. This in turn creates a mental pressure on the workers."

Remittances from migrant workers are the second-highest source of foreign currency earnings for Bangladesh after clothes manufacturing, and both experts said the government needed to do more to help families establish the truth.

"We need to think about this," said Raunaq Jahan, a senior civil servant with the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment.

"If we feel that a dead body requires another autopsy, then why not? These are new issues that we need to think about."

For the family of Mousumi Akter, any change will come too late.

"I used to speak to Mousumi once a week. The first few months were fine. But gradually she sounded upset. She would say that she had to work all day long without any breaks," said her mother Anwara.

"The last time I spoke to her, she told me that she was going to come home before taking up her next job. But I don't know what happened after that. I think they killed my daughter." (Reporting by Naimul Karim @Naimonthefield; Editing by Jason Fields and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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