When the pandemic forced Firoza Begum to return to Bangladesh after six months trapped in her employer’s home without pay, her husband was so angry that she had returned empty-handed that he was not allowed to return to the family home.
All of his savings after 14 years working in the Middle East had been spent running away from his abusive employer.
Begum, 40, had to go to her parents’ home, where she took responsibility for her mother and two disabled sisters.
For years, Bangladeshi migrant workers have supported their families in their home countries, and their remittances have been vital in keeping entire communities out of extreme poverty as the government has sought to meet the sustainable development goals of the UN by 2030.
But after hundreds of thousands of migrant workers lost their jobs due to the economic impact of Covid-19, the government investigation suggests that they and their families are returning to the poverty from which they tried to escape.
A year ago, Begum earned 22,000 Bangladeshi taka (£ 190) every month working for a Saudi doctor and sent almost all of it to her husband or parents to repair houses, buy land and pay medical bills.
“Now there is no income. I’m having a hard time covering our family’s monthly expenses, ”he says. “We are surviving by borrowing from my relatives. I owe them about 150,000 taka. I don’t know how this money will be returned. “
The government has encouraged work abroad. Remittances were worth $ 15bn (£ 11bn) a year and helped reduce poverty in rural areas, supporting families and financing small businesses.
However, last April, remittances were at their lowest level in a decade, according to the central bank, and the protracted crisis is pushing back Bangladesh’s progress on poverty. The World Food Program has estimated that, at the global level, the drop in remittances from migrant workers could represent a 33 million people at risk of hunger.
When the government reported to the UN On its progress towards the sustainable development goals in June, it said the poverty rate had halved from 40% in 2005 to 20.5% in 2019, but that the pandemic was at risk of halting the main strategies of promoting work abroad and increasing employment opportunities for the poorest. . By June 2020, the poverty rate had risen again to 29.5%.
A survey conducted by a Bangladeshi research company Innovision said that, on average, low-income families had enough to support themselves for eight days with no additional income, while most households had grain warehouses that would last 11 days.
Brac, the largest NGO in Bangladesh, created a database of 35,000 returnees to support them with cash grants and counseling. Shariful Islam, director of the Brac migration program, says there have been more than 400,000 returnees since early 2020 and most had no support.
“People come back empty-handed who have lost their jobs. These people don’t know what will happen in the future. ”
Given the number of people supported by each migrant worker, he says, up to a third of the population could be affected by job losses, and there are still many unemployed stranded abroad.
A survey in June The UN migration agency (IOM) revealed that the majority of returnees were now unemployed and half had no income.
In Paschim Charbata, a village in the coastal district of Noakhali, almost every household had sent a man abroad in the last decade, but most are now back. They sit at home worrying about work, accumulating debt, and feeding their families.
“The coronavirus pandemic has stopped my life. The trajectory of my life was at its peak, but now it is descending rapidly. The family was pretty good. I could spend the money on what my family needed. Now it is very difficult to cover daily expenses, ”says Reaz Mahmud, 39.
He has accumulated a debt of 600,000 taka (£ 5,200), double the amount he borrowed when he first left Bangladesh in 2010 to work as an electrician in Qatar.
His job as a private driver in Oman ended when the pandemic triggered travel restrictions and trapped him in Bangladesh, where he had been on vacation for the first time in two years.
Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, director of the NGO Bangladesh Coast, says the organization will make migrant workers a priority by supporting them to reintegrate into society or providing them with training so they can return to work abroad with better skills.
“There are hardships because they are running out of savings, they are not in good condition and sometimes they are suffering trauma. If it continues, it will create social unrest, so we are ready to support them, ”says Chowdhury.
Mahmud had to send his wife to his father’s house with their three children and sell most of his land. With so many people looking for work, finding work has proven impossible and he is now faced with selling his family’s parcel of land unless he can return to Oman.
“Before the pandemic, I was able to send money home every month, and from abroad I alleviated many of the crises at home. I thought I could make a living from this job, that it could improve my life, ”says Mahmud. “The coronavirus shattered all dreams.”
Subscribe to the Global Dispatch newsletter, a bi-weekly recap of our top stories, recommended reading and thoughts from our team on key development and human rights issues:
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism