The coronavirus pandemic has devastated sectors of the world economy dominated by immigrant labor: Restaurants, hotels, office cleaning services, in-home childcare and hair and nail salons, among others, have seen businesses shuttered as nonessential. The Migration Policy Institute found that 20% of the U.S. workers in vulnerable industries facing layoffs are immigrants, even though they only make up 17% of the civilian workforce.

Due to halt in economic activities with the closure of most business establishments across the world, Bangladeshi migrant workers in different countries said they were facing hardship in the circumstance of coronavirus pandemic.

As they are forced to stay home, the migrants urged Bangladeshis embassies concerned to assist them temporarily to overcome the miserable situation they are in during lockdown. The workers also urged the Bangladesh government to provide bank loan without interest and give incentive to survive with their family members.

Experts said almost all the destinations of the migrants from where they send money back home are grappling with coronavirus prevalence, halting economic activity with the closure of most business establishments, leaving the wage earners at lurch and their incomes dwindling.

As a result, Bangladesh is likely to suffer a sharp fall in remittance inflow as almost all Bangladeshi expatriates around the world remain unemployed under the prevailing situation, they also feared.

Meanwhile, around 1.5 lakh Bangladeshi workers, who returned home from different countries, are facing a bleak future as they are not sure whether they will be able to return to their workplaces.

Bangladeshi migrants affected from COVID-19 including Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Dubai, Bahrain, Canada and USA. They said there are going through a very difficult time. Ataur Rahman, a Bangladeshi migrant in Kuwait, said they are not well in the country after declaration of curfew by the government following the Coronavirus pandemic.

"More than one month, we can't go in my workplace. Full day, we have to pass idle time in room. We are suffering in various ways as we can't earn a single dinar and eat meals properly. Even our family members also are in hardship not getting money," he added. Ataur Rahman said they are not getting enough help from Bangladeshi embassy during the lockdown.

"It's said migrants are backbone of Bangladesh's economy but not a single people from embassy communicates with us on whether we are surviving in the circumstance. They even behave roughly with migrants," he added.

Bangladesh's inward remittances might fall by around 22 per cent in 2020 following the ongoing global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the World Bank (WB).

The volume of Bangladesh's inward remittances is likely to reach US$ 14 billion at the end of 2020, compared to over $18 billion in 2019, WB said in its report on 'COVID-19 Crisis Through a Migration Lens' this week.

"In Bangladesh, remittances are projected at $14 billion for 2020, a likely fall of about 22 per cent," the WB report revealed. Remittances to South Asia are also projected to decline by 22 per cent to $109 billion in 2020, following the growth of 6.1 per cent in 2019, according to the report. The deceleration in remittances to the South Asian region in 2020 is driven by the global economic slowdown due to the coronavirus outbreak as well as oil price declines, it mentioned.

The coronavirus-related global slowdown and travel restrictions will also affect migratory movements, and this is likely to keep remittances subdued even in 2021, the WB predicted.

Meanwhile, the volume of Bangladesh's inward remittance declined by around 12 per cent to $1.29 billion in March 2020, compared to that of March in 2019 due to COVID-19 impact.

Tales of misery

Nizam Uddin Akash told our sister newsagency UNB that he has been in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) for long years. Now he is doing business. Under the circumstance of lockdown, they are under huge pressure.

"I have a company in Saudi where around 300 Bangladeshis work. I am now under huge pressure to pay salaries of the employees. Our survival depends on how long the lockdown will remain." Nizam Uddin added he got many allegations from migrants that they can't take meals properly now.

Another migrant Delwar Hossain said he lived in Saudi for 30 years. "Now all workers are in panic and hardship as we can't work. Bangladesh government should provide bank loan without interest and give temporarily a fund to help us and our families in circumstances of COVID-19," he added.

Rubel Hossain who lives in Malaysia said, "I stay in my room for the last two weeks due to shut business establishments. I came here on a free visa to borrow money from our relatives but It can't be paid as I have no income now. So I am in much trouble," he added.

Talking to UNB, Ismail Hossain Shapon, came from Shariatpur who has been working in Italy for a decade. "I have passed the last 12 years in Italy very well and sent huge money for my family in Bangladesh too. But now I can't send money following lockdown. Italy is passing through a dire situation now. Thousands of people die. It's tough to survive here for us. We can't earn money in the circumstance," he also said.

Ismail Hossain said around two lakh regular and irregular migrants are in Italy. All are under pressure owing to COVID-19.

"Irregulars migrants are now facing more hardship as they don't get any assistance from the government or communities. Many Bangalis came here to sell their lands and pay installments in banks and NGOs," he added.

Another Bangladeshi expatriate living in Italy Asgar Hossain said the owner of the shop he used to work died from coronavirus. "I'm now jobless and also can't go out of home. I borrowed some money from one of my friends for survival. I don't know how my family members in Bangladesh will survive as they fully depend on my income," he added.

Sixteen migrant rights bodies and civil society organisations have made a passionate plea to the Prime Minister to create a fund for distressed migrants and their families in Bangladesh affected by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. In a letter signed by Dr Tasneem Siddiqui, chairman of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), they conveyed the plight and expectations of the migrants.

The migrants from Bangladesh in the Middle-East countries and elsewhere are experiencing immense hardship after losing their jobs or for becoming undocumented. The flow of remittance, which is now $18 billion a year, is likely to dwindle in the future. They suggested that the government should increase incentives to keep the fund flow stable and create alternative jobs at home for those who are returning after losing jobs.

Migrants working in the Gulf, South-East Asian countries, Europe and America are anxiously awaiting a positive reply from the premier. The migrants, including those working under 'free visa', undocumented ones, small entrepreneurs, service sector employees in the Middle East as well as a large section of those working in Europe are now mostly jobless and without income.

In the absence of remittance, family members of the migrants in the country are facing food insecurity. The government has recently announced a Tk 2.0 billion fund for assisting the migrants. But for helping the vulnerable section of 10 million migrants and their families, such fund is not enough.

The organisations appealed to the Prime Minister for creating a reasonable amount of fund for the migrants from the government exchequer, not depending on the Wage Earners' Welfare Fund that has been created by the migrants themselves.

They protested the move by a number of countries to deport irregular migrants. According to international law, labour-receiving countries must provide protection to all migrants irrespective of their status.

What is more worrying is that many Bangladeshi workers in the Middle Eastern countries are facing food shortage as they have no money left with them. The workers alleged that there is lack of support from the authorities of those countries as well as Bangladesh embassies there.

The workers said many were having only one meal a day or passing their days half-fed. They would fall sick soon if the situation continues for a longer period.

The migrant workers' conditions are really vulnerable as they lost jobs because of the lockdown. As such, the embassies should keep regular contact with them and provide necessary assistances which they are allegedly not doing. The embassies should work in coordination with the authorities concerned in those countries and the Bangladeshi community which have charities there. Otherwise, it would be very difficult for the large number of workers to even survive. The embassies should also help the workers in receiving benefits from the governments of those countries. If needed, they can recruit more manpower in the embassies.

The Wage Earners' Welfare Board has recently provided Tk 8.0 million to the Bangladesh embassy in Saudi Arabia to meet the essential needs of the workers who are in vulnerable condition. This amount is far from what is needed. There are thousands of migrants in those countries who are in need of fund for meals.

Recently, the International Organisation of Migrants (IOM) said the international community must respond to the humanitarian needs of the migrant workers on a permanent basis. Such a permanent tool will be of immense use for poor countries like Bangladesh who have limited financial resources to deal with such a crisis.

Atlas shrugged

Kamrul Hasan who has been working in United States of America (USA) for the last 29 years.

"The situation in America is not good. We are going through a very difficult time here. The business establishments are shut following COVID-19. We stay at home now," he added.

He added coronavirus broke the economic activities of America.

"Around 40,000 Bangladeshis are only in Califormia state. The entire American including California, is stagnant after the 1/11 incident. Millions of people quit their jobs and live at home in the circumstance," he also added.

Not only migrant workers but also a number of Bangladeshi students of different colleges and universities across the world are in trouble following COVID-19.

The misery extends across the border north to Canada. Riad Shimul, a Bangladeshi student of Institute of Business and Technology College at Toronto of Canada, said all international students are now suffering immensely.

"We work several hours daily alongside our study. But now we can't work as business establishments shut due to COVID-19. So now we have to go through a difficult time here," he also said. Shimul the Bangladeshi businessmen are also in trouble as business activity is now inactive here.

The decline in remittance will not only hit the country's foreign exchange reserves but also threaten the livelihoods of millions of rural families that depend on the migrant workers for their livelihoods. Saudi Arabia has long been the largest source of remittances, followed by the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya, Iraq, Singapore, Malaysia, the US and the UK.

According to Bangladesh Bank data, the country received $2.58 billion remittance from Saudi in the first eight months of the current fiscal year while $3.11 billion in 2018-19 fiscal. Bangladesh also got $1.74 billion from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), $996.11 million from Kuwait, $814.05m from Oman and $739.38m from Qatar, in the last eight months of 2019-20 fiscal.

Besides, the country received $ 1.53 billion remittance from the USA, $987.28 million from the UK, $869.70m from Malaysia, $547.16m from Italy, $312.41m from Singapore and $37.54 million from Germany during the same period," the central bank data showed.

Talking to UNB, head of the BRAC Migration programme Shariful Hasan said around 4 lakh people came to Bangladesh from abroad in the past two months of which around 1 lakh are Bangladeshi expatriates.

"Every month, 50,000-60,000 people go abroad from Bangladesh and the number is around 6-7 lakh a year. The overseas employment is now closed following the COVID-19," he added.

Shariful said most of the 10 million Bangladeshi expatriates earn on a daily basis. Only 2 percent of them hold professional jobs. They're paid well while the rest are left without pay at the moment. He said the government should devise a plan from now on to help send back workers who are unable to go abroad due to the coronavirus outbreak and assist those who are in trouble abroad.

Founding chair of the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit (RMMRU) Dr Tasneem Siddiqui recommended formation of a fund for the families of Bangladeshi migrant workers having no earnings.

"Thanks to the government for announcement a fund of Tk 5,000 crore to pay wages of the workers employed in export-oriented industries. So, we're demanding to form a fund similarly to provide loan without interest and donation in some cases to the families of the Bangladeshi migrants who remain workless abroad," she said.

Dr Tasneem also recommended ensuring protection of Bangladeshi migrants in different countries by conducting free COVID-19 tests and providing food assistance through the Bangladesh missions stationed abroad.

Former caretaker government finance adviser Dr AB Mirza Azizul Islam said the remittance inflow may fall further in the coming months flowing the pandemic.

"Many Bangladeshis will lose their jobs and they will face difficulties to get new jobs amid the impending economic meltdown. "It's also uncertain whether the migrant workers who came back home will get a chance to join their jobs again amid travel ban by different countries."

The noted economist also said Bangladesh government has "nothing to do" in this regard as it is a global problem. "But the government has to maintain communication properly with the countries so that Bangladeshi workers can join their jobs."

With the death of four more people from coronavirus in the last 24 hours till Friday, April 24 the death toll from the virus in Bangladesh stood at 131. Besides, 503 more people tested positive for coronavirus during the period, taking the number of such cases in the country to 4,689. Till April 21 however, at least 310 Bangladeshi nationals and Bangladeshi diaspora members living abroad died of COVID-19 in 13 countries, according to Bangladeshi diplomatic sources and community people in the affected countries. Most of them died in the US and the UK.

Additional reporting by Rafikul Islam.

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