In 2019, Bangladesh sent over 700,000 workers abroad under government-to-government and private sector schemes, according to the data from the state-run Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training. At the same time, more than 100,000 Bangladeshi workers were deported back home last year due to a host of reasons, such as overstay and scarcity of jobs.

Of the total, some 62,000 workers were deported from different countries in the Middle East, home to the bulk of Bangladeshi migrant workers abroad, whose inward remittances play a big part in propping up the country's economy. According to the information available with BRAC migration programme, out of the total 62,000 workers who were sent back from the Middle East, almost half came from Saudi Arabia alone, as part of a drive against illegal immigrants. Saudi Arabia had also stopped recruiting foreign workers in 42 trades as part of its economic reform. So, the workers engaged in such trades were being arrested and deported home.

The deportations continued right up to the Coronavirus lockdown that ensued in March, with a special flight of Saudia Airlines carrying 406 deported workers landing at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka on March 19. Earlier, over 7,000 Bangladeshi workers, who became irregular after failing to update their work permits, were deported from the Kingdom in the first two months of the year, according to the Wage Earners Welfare Board.

The deportations cannot be separated from the policy of 'Saudization' of jobs announced in 2016, to be implemented by the country's Ministry of Labor and Social Development, whereby Saudi companies and enterprises are required to fill up their workforce with Saudi nationals up to certain levels. As part of the Saudi Vision 2030's reforms, announced in 2016, reducing the number of unemployed Saudi nationals is a key element of the plan. Companies which fail to comply with Saudization regulations have been warned that they "will not be awarded government contracts".

Combined with the coronavirus fallout and slumping oil prices, it may lead to the deportation of up to 10 lakh Bangladeshi migrant workers from Saudi Arabia in the next three to five years, according to a report by the Bangladesh mission in Riyadh submitted to the government through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs earlier this year. Saudi Arabia, the most popular destination of Bangladeshi migrant workers, is home to more than 20 lakh Bangladeshis, who send home around $3 billion in remittances each year.

The embassy in its report said Saudi authorities are introducing monthly fees for dependents of foreign workers and increasing the fees for iqamas or residency permits as part of implementing the "Saudization policy". The Bangladesh mission also cited automation and requirement of skilled workers as factors that could lead to deportation of Bangladeshi workers in the future.

In January and February this year, around 1.29 lakh Bangladeshis travelled abroad for employment. At least 95,385 - or three-fourths - went to Saudi Arabia, according to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training.

Yet Saudi labour ministry officials during a visit to Bangladesh in February made it clear that they will soon be recruiting only the skilled workers with valid certificates, while deportations continued en masse.

A 40-member Saudi delegation held several meetings with officials in Dhaka during the 13th session of the Bangladesh-Saudi Arabia Joint Commission. It was led by Mahir Abdul Rahman Gassim, Saudi Arabia's deputy minister for international affairs at the Ministry of Labor and Social Development.

"Saudi Arabia is going to introduce a new system regarding the recruitment of skilled migrant workers," Zahid Hossain, joint secretary of the Ministry of Expatriates Welfare and Overseas Employment (EWOE), said following the meeting. "We found the delegation very cooperative and keen on hiring Bangladeshi skilled migrants."

He added that the Kingdom wanted to ensure that Bangladesh was working toward the initiative through training programs for the migrant workers. "The delegation asked Bangladeshi authorities to provide training very carefully so that the migrant workers can cope with the working environment in the Kingdom. A technical committee from the Saudi Arabian government is expected to visit Bangladesh very soon to witness the preparations on ground."

Bangladesh has 70 Technical Training Centers across the country to prepare its workforce for the global job market, and these would be pressed into work to prepare skilled migrants for the Saudi Arabian market. But that could hardly change the fate of those being sent back.

In June, the International Organization for Migration warned that due to the global economic and labor crises created by the COVID-19 outbreak, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers would be expected to return to Bangladesh by the end of the year. In preparation for this, the Foreign Ministry announced a fund of around $85 million to ease the plight of the returnees. They will be provided with soft loans through the expatriates' welfare bank to start small businesses once they were back home.

Stuck in the middle with iqamas

Apart from the deportations, according to government data, nearly 50,000 Bangladeshi workers returned from Saudi Arabia between last December and this March who are eligible to return to work in the kingdom, but a majority were unable to return to work due to the coronavirus outbreak, which led to a lockdown in both countries and the suspension of flights. Many of them had their visas expiring on September 30, and thus anxiety was rife on whether they would ever be able to return.

As if in the form of a lifeline to them, international flights to and from Saudi Arabia resumed on September 15, following a decision of the Saudi authorities to exempt certain categories of Saudis and expatriates from the temporary travel ban imposed since March as part of precautionary measures to stem the spread of coronavirus. But the flight resumptions would be taking place on a country-by-country basis, and no such deal with Bangladesh had been struck yet.

On September 23, Foreign Minister Abdul Momen announced that the Bangladeshi workers who got stuck here will be able to return to their workplaces in the Kingdom smoothly soon, as both Biman and Saudi airlines got permission to operate flights apart from addressing visa and Iqama issues.

"Our Ambassador [Bangladesh Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dr Mohammad Javed Patwary] just phoned me conveying the positive outcome," Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen told our sister newsagency UNB over phone.

He said the Saudi government has given landing permission to Biman Bangladesh Airlines which will help the return of Bangladeshis smoothly. The government of Bangladesh has also given permission to all Saudi airlines to land here and take Bangladeshis back to the KSA, said the Foreign Minister. Dr Momen also said the Saudi government has agreed to extend visas for the Bangladeshis, if their already expired, who want to return to their workplaces in the KSA.

"Only a few cases of visa expiry, not that all visas are expired," said the Foreign Minister. The visa extension process for those whose visas expired would start from September 27 he said.

He also said the Iqama of Bangladeshi workers will remain valid for 24 more days and there will be further extension, if required.

"Iqama isn't provided by the Embassy. It's provided by the employers," Dr Momen said.

Earlier, Bangladesh sought one more extension of three months from Saudi Arabia for Bangladeshi valid visa holders and their Iqama (valid work permit) in an effort to help workers return to their workplaces. The Saudi government has so far extended the validity of Iqama for Bangladesh citizens thrice who got stuck here due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest extension term expired on September 30.

Bangladesh Embassy in Saudi Arabia has sent a letter to the Saudi Foreign Ministry seeking an extension of three months beyond September 30, said an official. Dr Momen urged the Bangladeshi expatriates willing to return to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to "have patience" instead of breaking the discipline.

"We all are working together. We're working very sincerely to resolve the problem. Having patience is very important," he told reporters at his office after an inter-ministerial meeting. After a section of the stranded workers started demonstrating outside the ticketing office for Saudia Airlines as well as the Foreign Ministry, the foreign minister warned that the Saudi government does not promote any anti-discipline activities and such demonstrations might bring negative outcomes for the workers.

"Our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina never wants expatriates to suffer," Dr Momen said.

He said the government has requested the Saudi government to extend the tenure of valid visa holders and iqama for another three months.

The foreign minister urged the workers not to get misguided by anyone and mentioned that the person who submitted a demand letter on behalf of demonstrating workers is not an expatriate but a local person involved in politics. Dr Momen also expressed his fear saying the government will have nothing to do if anybody's visa is cancelled. "Their (Saudi govt's) position is very strong in this regard."

He recalled almost seven years' ban on recruitment of Bangladeshi workers by the Saudi government. The foreign minister said the prime minister had worked hard and held discussions with the Saudi leadership several times resulting in the resumption of Bangladeshi recruitment.

"Now we have very good relations with Saudi Arabia," he said urging the workers to remain careful so that the Saudi government does not get any negative impression about Bangladesh. Saudi Arabia has since said it was extending the visa renewal deadline until October 14, based on a request by Dhaka.

Saudia began operating two passenger and two chartered flights from September 23, while Biman was scheduled to start flying workers back to the Kingdom from October 1.

October 1 was also the date disclosed by Dr Momen from when Bangladeshi expatriates, who got stuck here due to Covid-19 pandemic, would be able to return to their workplaces in Oman. He said the Bangladeshis can return to Oman by any airlines without the obligation of having no objection certificate (NOCs) from the Embassy.

But the returnees must have valid Omani resident permits or Iqamas, valid passports and Covid-19 test reports, Dr Momen said. He also said the returnees will have to go on a 14-day mandatory quarantine after their arrival in Oman.

The foreign minister trashed the perception that Saudi Arabia would send back 54,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh. These were rumours being bandied about to instigate some negative backlash in the cordial relations between Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh, he alleged

He said the Saudi government wants Bangladesh to provide passports to some 54,000 Rohingyas living in Saudi Arabia, as the Saudi government does not keep stateless people.

"It doesn't mean the Saudi government will send them back to Bangladesh," Dr Momen said.

'Impossible to ignore'

The six countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar - host the majority of the estimated 23 million migrant workers living in the Arab states. They include over 4.5 million Bangladeshis.

These are some of the richest countries in the world. Sadly, they have also become notorious for the systematic abuse and exploitation of the migrant workers who contribute so much to their economies. Unpaid wages, forced labour, dangerous working conditions and unsanitary accommodation facilities are too often part and parcel of the migration experience.

In the midst of the pandemic, Amnesty International came out with a report stating that COVID-19 was making Gulf countries' abuse of migrant workers impossible to ignore. It said the spread of COVID-19 had put migrant workers at even greater risk. Along with other organisations, Amnesty International raised its concerns about the impact of the pandemic on protection of migrant workers in the Gulf, where common issues like overcrowded accommodation now presented a public health risk.

By taking the right actions to protect migrant workers now, governments and businesses in the GCC, including Saudi Arabia, could start to turn the tide on years of abuse. Gulf countries must start to treat migrant workers equally and eliminate all systems that discriminate against them and infringe on their human rights. Amnesty suggested the following 7 things governments and employers need to do so that every migrant worker in the Gulf has the right to healthcare, adequate housing, social security and just working conditions:

1. Ensure migrant workers have adequate living conditions

2. Make sure everyone is fairly paid

3. Ensure people get health care and sick pay

4. Ensure access to information

5. Provide for workers who are stranded in the country

6. Ensure detention centres have adequate facilities, and don't deport anyone without due process.

7. Pay special attention to migrant domestic workers.

Moving forward, Amnesty said, Gulf governments and employers should work together to protect domestic workers from violence, abuse and discrimination. They should include them in labour laws in order to guarantee their labour rights which include limited working hours, day off, overtime pay and freedom of movement.

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