Informal migration will not end, so get a plan ready, please

Afsan Chowdhury
Published : 1 June 2015, 01:43 PM
Updated : 1 June 2015, 01:43 PM

Everyone is up in arms about the Bangladeshi boat-people along with the Rohingyas, who were found at sea and have grabbed global headlines. These people are stuck in nowhere-land and their suffering has touched many, but that has not necessarily led to any solutions.

Most of the statements coming from the GOB are about the situation of law and order, such as special tribunals to try traffickers, and even the migrants of this type, for damaging national honour. Given our experience with the sector, we fear that while it may not stem the tide of migrants, it will simply push up the cost paid to traffickers.

The dalals who are deeply entrenched in society and are closely linked to law enforcement agencies will simply hike the cost of informal migration up, as it's simply become riskier. But the demand for migration is so high, that this will not be deterred. It's difficult to see how the situation can improve primarily using official coercive tools.

From the ancient era, people of this land have experienced migration, whether in or out. Bengalis are a product of migration of many groups coming to live in the delta, so the ethnicity of these people are very mixed. This has happened because Bengal /Bangladesh is geographically uniquely located with several frontiers on all sides including the sea for migration.

These routes were used by ancient people to arrive and inter-marry which led to us. The Burma-Bengal hill ranges did not deter the migrants from reaching Bengal or the Dravidians from North India, or other ancient people who came from everywhere leading to Bengal. So as a highly penetrated zone, migration has basically created the unique mixed demography which we belong to.

But Bengalis have also travelled, and there are an enormous number of references to the local people migrating out as traders and wage labourers. But it's also true and sad that some of them ended up as slaves in distant lands. So the aspiration, courage, suffering, and helplessness of migrants that we are seeing today also has a long history.  Given that history, emigration stemming from Bangladesh has little chance. With increased search for prosperity, this too has escalated.

Bangladeshis have been going to other parts of the geography for long particularly to India as it exists now. The area defined as North-East has been receiving Bengalis for hundreds of years. As the land-to-person ratio has declined in deltaic Bengal/Bangladesh, migration has increased to this region. As all sub-continental land had a common political geography, this migration continued relatively smoothly. However, after the birth of India and Pakistan in 1947, it became politically sensitive and resistance from the local people grew.

But there are internal migrants too in our own land mentioned in our literature and songs regularly. Even the iconic novel "Padma Nadir Majhi" by Manik Bondopaddhaya has a migrant from Noakhali – Hossain Miah – as the major protagonist. The migrant is also seen as an outsider in Bengal, even internally, and disliked like elsewhere. But migration is a reality. Pushed by livelihood challenges, he migrates and migration is his coping skill to deal with the problems of his history and environment. No number of tribunals and coast guard boats can stop this flow. To deny migration is to ignore the Bengali DNA.

But migration today is a complex business and involves many players. This business is deeply rooted in society and the "traffickers" are not seen by most as pure villains, but "necessary villains" who help aspiring migrants. There is a hierarchy too of such dalals and those at the grassroots are hardly rich dons, but very ordinary middlemen who are also from the middle class. The people who run it at the top are rich, powerful and politically connected, and nothing will ever happen to them. I believe the state of the drug trade in Bangladesh is a good example to explain the immunity and impunity of the migrant-sending chain at work.

What has hurt us and our "image" is the sight of so many hopeless people adrift at sea. By being lumped together with the Rohingyas, who are stateless refugees from Myanmar, many see Bangladeshis at the same level. Incidentally, Bangladeshis too see the Rohingyas in negative terms, as human refuse.

However, Bangladeshis who migrate by boat are not very poor – the very poor go to India – and can afford to travel by paying dalals several lakhs to get into a migrant boat. When incidents like the recent one happen we should understand that this is a high-risk business venture gone wrong, in which many suffer. No need to feel humiliated and insulted by their fate. Sympathy is required. This sort of event is part of the present and will be part of the future as well, given the state of demand.

What we need to do perhaps is to make an honest assessment of the situation, which few of us know much about, and then act. For example, what is the percentage of successful "informal" migrants, that is to say, those who take this risky route and make it? It is they who are the examples of success which others try to follow regardless of the risk. Most suffer terribly but many make it and that is what pushes others to try their luck. The boat incident may be isolated, and though the risk is high, the chance of people avoiding risk is not high. So this will continue.

It's therefore important to draw a comprehensive picture rather than the existing isolated images. The objective needs to be comprehensive as well, taking into consideration the critical matter of supply and demand. Migration, both formal and informal, will not disappear. Everyone will benefit most from a realistic, comprehensive, people-friendly, and safe migration policy that incorporates all the elements that are a part of Bangladesh and its historical destiny, the gains, and the risks.

Afsan Chowdhury is a columnist.