By Naimul Karim
DHAKA, June 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 100 Bangladeshis trafficked to the remote island of Vanuatu with the promise of work that never materialized will start returning home this month, an official said on Monday.
The 101 migrants, two of whom are under 18, have been in Vanuatu since November and are living off handouts and rations, but were reluctant to leave because they had taken loans worth thousands of dollars to pay the traffickers, the official said.
"(The) majority of the Bangladeshis are willing to return voluntarily now," Mohammad Sufiur Rahman, Bangladesh's high commissioner to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We are expecting about 70 to return in different phases. They may start returning in a week or two. About 30 migrants, including witnesses and perpetrators who helped the traffickers, will not be included for return initially," he added.
Four people have been arrested on trafficking charges in connection with the case and are facing trial in Vanuatu.
Bangladesh is one of the largest exporters of manpower in the world and depends heavily on remittances from abroad.
According to official data, at least 1 million Bangladeshis secured jobs overseas in 2017 - the highest number ever recorded.
But this depends largely upon unlicensed brokers working in rural areas and opens the door to trafficking.
"The returns will take place over several weeks based on seat availability," said J. Christopher Lowenstein-Lom, a spokesman for the United Nations migration agency, which is funding the migrants' return.
"The first returnees won't be involved in the legal proceedings."
However one of the migrants, Shahin Khan Mustafa, said he was still unwilling to return to Bangladesh.
"I had a factory in Bangladesh that closed down after I came here. I haven't been able to pay the bank the monthly instalments. I am under a lot of pressure," he said by phone from Vanuatu.
Mustafa said all the Bangladeshi migrants were worried about the future.
"They are all tense," he said. "They don't know how they will pay back all the money that they had borrowed before coming here."
(Reporting by Naimul Karim @Naimonthefield; Editing by 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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