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The Thin Line between Labor Migration and Trafficking

September 14, 2022

By Asinur Reza

Dreaming of better fortune for his family, “Hasan” left his remote Bangladeshi village for a job in Saudi Arabia. To pay for his trip, his family sold their only resource, a small piece of land, and borrowed from relatives and a local welfare association. They handed the money—roughly 5,500 U.S. dollars—to a local dalal (broker) who promised Hasan an office job for 50,000 Bangladeshi taka per month.

The broker kept the money, but Hasan never got the promised job; he didn’t even have the right permit to work in Saudi Arabia. After a year of struggle, in constant fear of arrest, someone offered him a way out, a chance to go to Malé, the island capital of the Maldives.

Labor migration plays an outsized role in the economy of Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Reports have estimated the number of Bangladeshi labor migrants at over 13 million, spread among 160 countries, the sixth-largest labor diaspora in the world according to the World Bank, and Bangladesh is the world’s seventh-largest recipient of foreign remittances.

Hasan arrived in Malé with only a tourist visa, but he found work fairly easily. That was five years ago, and both his passport and visa are now long expired, but it hasn’t hindered his progress. He’s now working as a salesman in a clothing shop on Hulhumalé Island and earning 300 Maldivian rufiyaa (about 20 U.S. dollars) a day. His family has almost repaid their debts, and Hasan is hoping to visit them soon.

But not everyone is as lucky as Hasan in the Maldives. On Maafushi island, another Bangladeshi expatriate spoke of his life working on a fishing boat and the events that brought him there. He too was deceived by his dalal, who promised to take him to Malaysia but delivered him to the Maldives. His weather-beaten skin and rough appearance testify to the hard life on the boats, with minimal pay and no way out. He received no formal education in his poverty-stricken region of Bangladesh, and he has no way to earn a living if he returns. Disadvantaged and undocumented, survival is his first priority.

A Bangladeshi labor migrant working in a local shop in Malé (Photo: Md. Zakaria)

The number of Bangladeshis working in the Maldives archipelago is hard to determine, but several reports hint at nearly 230,000, including tens of thousands who are undocumented. Considering the small population of these tiny islands—less than half a million—the number of Bangladeshis is staggering. They can be seen in almost every hotel, resort, and shop in the capital and on most of the inhabited islands.

Not long ago, the Maldives was struggling to survive, with minimal agriculture and almost no natural resources, much like the Gulf countries a century ago. The Maldives never found oil beneath their white sands, but Mother Nature did not leave them empty-handed. The islands are overflowing with otherworldly beauty: heavenly beaches, blue lagoons, cooling breezes, and the gentle embrace of the Indian ocean have made this country a prime destination for tourists around the globe. The blue ocean is also full of marine life, which supports a thriving fishing industry, especially tuna for export.

There is another parallel with the Gulf countries. As tourism lifted the native Maldives population out of poverty, they began to import workers from neighboring countries like India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh. And there was plenty of work for the visiting workers.

This Bangladeshi migrant, who works in a dried fish shop, has lived in the Maldives for nearly 12 years. (Photo: Md. Zakaria)

But behind the scenes in this apparent paradise there are frequent reports of forced labor, debt bondage, and other human rights violations. The U.S. State Department’s 2022 report on trafficking in persons (TIP) found that fraudulently recruited Bangladeshi workers often fall victim to trafficking in the Maldives.

Labor traffickers target Bangladeshi children who enter the country on work visas and falsified passports. Police reported an increase in Bangladeshi nationals living in Maldives who pose as labor agents and fraudulently recruit migrant workers from Bangladesh, facilitate their travel to Maldives, and abandon them upon arrival without documentation, rendering them vulnerable to traffickers.

Fishing boats in a harbor near Malé. Many of the crew on these ships are migrant workers. (Photo: Anuradhi Perera)

There are prospects for improvement, however. After three years on the U.S. State Department’s TIP “Tier 2 Watch List,” the 2021 and 2022 TIP report raised the country’s rank to Tier 2, a positive step in the direction of the highest antitrafficking ranking, Tier 1. This improvement reflects the efforts of the Maldivian government, which began incorporating questions about labor exploitation and unethical recruitment into health screenings and Covid-19 contact tracing for all foreign workers. The government has also established an Office of Anti–Human Trafficking (ATO) and amended its Prevention of Human Trafficking Act to conform to the United Nations’ 2000 TIP Protocol.

The Asia Foundation’s ongoing South Asia Governance Program (SAGP) touches on the grave issues of irregular and undocumented labor migration and human trafficking between the Maldives and Bangladesh, with a particular focus on policymaking. Currently, SAGP is implementing two projects collaborating with its partners the Public Interest Law Centre, in the Maldives, and the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, in Bangladesh, to reduce trafficking and improve the conditions of international labor migrants in the region.

In the end, there is hope on the horizon for irregular and undocumented Bangladeshi workers. Recently, the Maldives Economic Development Ministry launched a program to regularize the visas and work permits of undocumented Bangladeshis. Bangladesh’s mission in the Maldives has urged undocumented workers to participate in this program through their employers, who must apply to the Maldives Economic Development Ministry. The Asia Foundation will continue to work with key stakeholders and our CSO partners to reduce exploitation and trafficking and provide safe conditions for labor migrants, which will ultimately contribute to the economic development of both countries.

Asinur Reza is a senior program officer with the Asia Foundation’s South Asia Governance Program, based in Bangladesh. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Bangladesh
Related programs: Inclusive Economic Growth
Related topics: Labor Migration, Migration

1 Comment

  1. Good eye-opening blog!

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