The pandemic and governments’ measures to contain it have snatched the economic lifeline from thousands of Bangladeshi migrants and their dependants
Twenty Saudi Riyals, equivalent to Tk450, is all Ariful Islam earns, daily, from his office cleaning job every morning in Dammam, the capital of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
The financial relief that his family looked forward to, when they borrowed Tk5 lakh to send him abroad, seems but a dream now. He lost his hotel job three months after arriving in the Middle-Eastern country, in November last year – when he left Bangladesh to join his father, Sharif Mia.
Sharif, aged over 50, also has not had any income for about three months because the restaurant, where he was employed, is shut for the coronavirus pandemic.
A migrant worker for more than two decades, he and his family, back in a small village of Brahmanbaria, did not foresee the financial crisis and had no shield against it.
Foreign remittances were the lifeline for Sharif's family of seven members – including his two children and elderly parents. He toiled all day, for years, so that his family was fed, his son and daughter were educated and his parents could access healthcare.
He also supported his poor in-laws and other relatives. Often, a share of the money he sent every month from Saudi Arabia went to finance a marriage or medical procedure – or to create employment for his brother back home.
The global pandemic and governments' measures to contain it have snatched the economic lifeline from Sharif, and hundreds of thousands of other Bangladeshi migrant workers – as well as their dependants.
The World Bank projects a 20 percent decline in global remittances, the sharpest in history, inflicted by Covid-19 shutdowns, in 2020. The money flow slows because of job losses and wage cuts.
The crisis is deeper for Bangladesh that sees about 50,000 people go overseas every month, on average, in search of a better life out of poverty. The opportunities have been sealed off by the coronavirus.
Besides, a huge number of the nearly one crore migrants are to face repatriation in the months to come after lay-offs and deportation for lacking legal papers.
About 1,500 migrant workers flew in from the Gulf countries in April and the first week of this month on special flights amid the shutdown. There is the fear of an influx of between five and 10 lakh migrants, as the coronavirus impact pans out.
"It will be a challenge to support and reintegrate them into society. The country does not have the experience of handling such a huge number of returnees," said Shariful Islam Hasan, head of the Migration Program at Brac.
Even before the shutdown, in the month until March 18, more than 2 lakh migrants returned, according to the home ministry. The highest number was 41,000 returnees from Saudi Arabia, followed by 37,000 from the UAE. The two countries host 32 percent and 18 percent of Bangladeshi migrants, respectively.
Against this backdrop, inward remittance fell 11 percent year-on-year to $1.29 billion in March, while the April figure went further down to $1.08 billion, a 24.47 percent drop from a year earlier, according to central bank data.
There are migrants who came to spend their holidays and are now unable to go back to work.
One of them, Mohammad Iqbal worries if he will ever be able to return since his visa expired.
He came in December with savings to carry on for three months and to buy a small piece of land so he can build a house for his family to separate from parents and siblings.
He left very limited cash with his family in Kosba upazila of Brahmanbaria before saying goodbye on March 21. As he rolled a trolley with his luggage through the Dhaka airport, he thought he would soon send money home.
To his shock, he got the news of the suspension of flights.
With his wife pregnant for the second time and four others to support, his days at home are no less than a nightmare.
Shariful of Brac's Migration Program said the government has to move through diplomatic channels so that those who came on vacation get hired back as the situation improves. "Moreover, it can request the host nations not to send back any more migrants during this crisis."
Despite all these measures, many might have to return, and in that case, the government should chalk out efforts to rehabilitate them based on their skills through loans, incentives, training and counselling.
Michal Rutkowski, global director of the social protection and jobs global practice at the World Bank, said social protection interventions in host countries should support the migrant population.
He suggested this at a time when the global oil price has nosedived, maiming almost all economies in the Middle East and forcing them to take measures to cope with the sudden economic shift.
For example, Saudi Arabia has suspended the cost of living allowance and tripled the value added tax, which will come into effect from June and July. The austerity measures may have an impact on the employment opportunities for migrants, a majority of whom are from Asia.
The Saudi central bank's foreign reserves fell in March at their fastest rate in at least 20 years and to their lowest since 2011. Oil revenues in the first three months of the year fell 24 percent from a year earlier to $34 billion, pulling total revenues down 22 percent, according to a Reuters report.
Meanwhile, Rokeya Begum, wife of Sharif, the migrant worker in Dammam, is counting days as to when her husband and son Ariful will be able to join work.
On Saturday, Ariful had to move out of the small room that he had shared with his father and another migrant, pressured by the Saudi police not to cram into one place. A separate accommodation comes with an additional cost of 200 Riyals in rent from the next month.
The duo is relying on the meagre income from Ariful's part-time job.
Three months have gone by since they stopped sending money home. "The villagers think we are well-off than them. I cannot even ask for help," 45-year-old Rokeya said.
She has been subsisting on microcredit and is anxious as the fund is drying up.