Deceived in the desert

Bangladeshi fortune-seekers helpless in north Africa
“I came to Libya eleven months ago in a group of 15. At the airport, two men of the agency that organised my work permit and visa in Dhaka took all our passports as soon as we came out of the immigration. We then boarded a bus. In the evening, we reached a big rickety house. Not a single person was on the road. We were given mattresses and asked to sleep there and to wait to start our job.”
“The place was very dirty. We were given khobja (local bread) to eat for the night. During the four months that we waited for starting our job, we were half starved, intimidated and warned of dire consequences if we tried to flee. After four months, as many of us started to get worried about our families, left back heavily indebted for our migration expenses, the two men led us to a factory one day, where we were told we would be working from early morning till evening.”
“A month later, when we asked the factory owner for our salaries, he told us the two men had a contract with him, according to which he would pay our salaries to them only. Two weeks later, the two men arrived at our dormitory and gave us 250 Libyan dinars each, half of what we were promised in Dhaka. The two men told us that the remainder of our salary was deducted for our food, accommodation and agency fees. For the next three months, the men arrived at our dormitory every month and paid us the deducted salary. Then over the last three months, before we fled Libya, there was no trace of the men. We were told by the factory owner, that he had paid the men our salaries.”
Over the last nine days I have been working in Choucha, where 17,000 Bangladeshi migrant workers from Libya took shelter, this has been the most common story I heard.
Most of these workers paid up to Tk 3 lakh to the agencies back home for a job in Libya.
The sad story of most of these migrant workers goes far. Noor Hossain, a middle-aged man from Noakhali Sadar, who spent 11 months in Tripoli, narrated his bitter experience to me.
“We could not complain to anyone in Bangladeshi embassy in fear of harassment because those notorious dalals (manpower brokers) were closely associated with officials there,” said Noor Hossain.
“In the recent official Bangla new year celebration at the embassy, those dalals were the top guests,” he added.
Noor Hossain and many others in Choucha camp told me how the brokers come into play in the entire process of exploitation. They also blamed the Libyan system of visa issuance for migrant workers for the exploitation. They said lack of honest officials at the Bangladesh embassy made the situation worse for the innocent workers.
A chronic shortage of laborers and skilled and semi-skilled workers always prevailed in the oil rich Libya, where, at any time, hundreds of big overseas companies are working on mega projects in all different sectors.
“Whenever a site requires some workers desperately, the Bangladeshi and other dalals are instantly there to sign a deal, because they have the ready foreign laborers within their custody in Libya, languishing in some undisclosed warehouses” said Ashutosh Roy from Shoilokupa in Jhenidah, who spent 2.5 years in Libya working as a construction worker.
How the Bangladeshi workers are initially brought into Libya before their brokers throw them into warehouses is yet another story that stands as “administratively perfect”.
Noor Hossain said false documents are produced in Libya with letterheads from different companies in fictitious names, and then, the documents are approved, as required by Bangladeshi rules, by the Bangladesh embassy.
A vicious cycle of human traffickers, comprising Libyans and other nationals, manage the visas in Libya.
“There were instances when the dalals and their associates added a zero to the number 100 and imported 1,000 workers from Bangladesh, and kept the extra 900 under their custody in derelict warehouses in the suburbs of the industrialized zones,” Abdul Halim, around 45, from Savar in Dhamrai.
As I sat down with a group of stranded Bangladeshi migrants inside a tent, more people crammed in to tell their stories.
“Over the last 11 months, we learnt about the warehouses where hundreds of newcomers from Bangladesh were kept in the most sub-human conditions,” said Noor Hossain.
Mohammad Sobhan from Narayanganj said he tried to call the Bangladesh Embassy in Tripoli to inform that their approved papers for the company in which he was supposed to work for US$ 400 did not exist.
“After trying the phone for a long time, an embassy person picked up and asked me to speak in English,” said Sobhan. “I gave up hope and obeyed the dalals thereafter,” he added.
Some of the names of the dalals they mentioned, have their own warehouses across Libya. For instance, ‘Salauddiner godown’, ‘Babuler godown’, ‘Jahangirer godown’, ‘Swadhiner godown’, where hundreds of Bangladeshis were forcibly confined.
“Many of these workers have sold their last belonging back home with a hope to prosper by offering sweat in a country that paid its laborers much better wages than in Bangladesh,” said Noor Hossain. “ But now their dreams have been shattered with Libya going into war,” he added.
While many in the Choucha camp were deeply worried about their future in Bangladesh, I met one man, Mohammad Abdus Samad Mukul, about 50, from Monirumpur in Jessore, who stood firm against all odds. Since Mukul left his 22-month old employment in Libya and fled towards Tunisia recently, he started writing songs about the upheavals in Libya and the ensuing sufferings of Bangladeshi migrant workers there. In the crowded camps every evening, young men gather around Mukul listening to his songs of hope in folklore tunes in his husky voice.
“I want to tell all my brothers here that our sufferings today will bring happiness for our future generations,” said Mukul after he finished singing a song.


Courtesy of The Daily Star

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