By Naimul Karim
DHAKA, March 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 100 Bangladeshi female workers abused or exploited in Saudi Arabia returned home this week, according to human rights activists, fuelling calls to stop sending Bangladeshi women to the Middle East to work as housemaids.
Bangladeshi non-government organisation BRAC said an increasing number of women were returning from the Middle East after being mistreated, with about 227 coming back in February - including the latest 100 - compared to 180 in January.
The number of Bangladeshi women going to Saudi Arabia to work jumped to about 83,000 in 2017 from about 20,000 in 2015 when the two governments signed an agreement on domestic workers, according to government data.
But human rights groups said the surge in numbers had been accompanied by an increasing number of reports of female workers being mistreated and returning home, prompting calls to review Bangladesh's policy of sending housemaids to the Middle East.
Shariful Hasan, head of BRAC's migration programme, said the women who returned this week were tortured mentally and physically.
"They don't receive their wages properly. They are also physically beaten and tortured," Hasan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"In the last two years we found 25 to 30 women workers from the Middle East who suffered from major mental disorders. We also found five to six of them who were pregnant."
Bangladesh is one of the largest exporters of manpower, with a record one million people going overseas to work in 2017, and the money sent back is the country's second-highest source of foreign currency earnings after clothing manufacturing.
According to data from BRAC's migration programme, last year about 1,300 women returned from Saudi Arabia, saying they had been tortured or exploited.
Raunaq Jahan, a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Expatriates Welfare and Overseas Employment (EWOE), said the Bangladesh government has yet to build a comprehensive system to count the number of returning migrants.
EWOE's airport officials estimated that at least 950 Bangladeshi female workers returned home in 2018 and more than 100 returned this week.
Jahan said the government was in the process of interviewing the workers to try to understand the problems they faced.
"It will take some time but we will solve this," she said.
But the country's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has called for the government to take immediate action.
"The stories of torture that we heard from these women were inhumane. Bangladesh should avoid sending housemaids and look at other professions," said Kazi Reazul Hoque, chairman of the NHRC, an autonomous public body.
Nasima Akter, 24, who returned from Saudi Arabia last month, backed fast action by the government.
"I used to work for 18 hours a day. At the end of the day, I never had any energy to do anything but collapse and go to sleep. Despite this, I did not get paid for three months. I used to get shouted at whenever I asked for my salary," she said.
"I thought working in Saudi Arabia would make me rich. But if this is the kind of pain you have to go through for that, it's definitely not worth it." (Reporting by Naimul Karim @Naimonthefield; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith 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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