Stalked by hunger in foreign lands

Facing hardships amid virus fallout, over 1 lakh Bangladeshi workers in Middle East in need of food assistance

Jamil Mahmud and Rashidul Hasan
Over one lakh Bangladeshis in different Middle Eastern countries are suffering acute hunger while many other Bangladeshis have become unemployed amid the shutdown of economies across the world.

In different parts of the world, Bangladeshi migrants are struggling to pay their rent, buy essentials and bear the cost of mandatory coronavirus tests.

Bangladesh’s permanent representative to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Golam Moshi said over five million Bangladeshi migrants work in the Middle East and at least one lakh of them are suffering hunger while most of them are gripped by uncertainty.

Officials at multiple embassies in the region agreed that the number of their fellow country people facing food shortage would be over one lakh. But they requested not to be named.

Bangladesh embassy officials in Saudi Arabia handed out food parcels to around 8,000 Bangladeshi workers in phases.

Thousands of others immediately need food aid because many have not been able to earn in over two-and-a-half months, Moshi, also Bangladesh ambassador in Saudi Arabia, told The Daily Star.

Besides, many of the two to three lakh Bangladeshis, who work in Saudi Arabia illegally, do not even leave their living quarters fearing that the authorities would launch a crackdown on illegal migrants amid an ailing economy, he said.

Officials in Bahrain, Malaysia, Italy and Greece also said food parcels and cash support might soon be needed for the migrant workers.

About one million Bangladeshis, including thousands of undocumented ones, live in Malaysia, Greece and Italy.

On April 5, the expatriates’ welfare ministry announced a Tk 4.5 crore fund after different missions requested for resources to provide migrants with support, according to a ministry release.

On April 23, Expatriates’ Welfare Minister Imran Ahmad announced another Tk 3 crore fund for “immediate food support”, said another release.

Bangladesh embassy in Manama received in its WhatsApp and email accounts plea for food from at least 4,200 migrants, said Sheikh Mohammed Tauhidul Islam, labour welfare counsellor at the embassy.

The mission last week handed out food parcels to 2,800 and the rest were likely to get the support soon, he said.

About one-fourth of nearly two lakh Bangladeshi migrant workers in Bahrain are facing financial hardship after completely or partially losing their earnings, he said, adding most of those employed as cleaners became unemployed.

In Malaysia, Bangladeshi migrant rights activist Harun-ur-Rashid told The Daily Star that undocumented migrant workers were being detained en masse recently.

Besides running short of food, many undocumented workers are in fear now, Harun said, adding that the detentions during the pandemic were “inhumane”.

Malaysian government made it mandatory for each foreign worker to get tested for coronavirus. Although the authorities said that the employers must pay for the tests, it is the workers who will end up paying for them, he said.

“It is an additional burden on the workers,” he said.

There is a Malaysian government directive to pay the basic wages to employees unable to work due to the coronavirus restrictions, but many workers received only 12 days’ basic salary for March, he said.

Bangladesh High Commission in Kuala Lumpur is trying to deliver food aid to those in need, said Zahirul Islam, labour welfare counsellor at the commission.

Syeda Farhana Nur Chowdhury, labour welfare counsellor at Bangladesh embassy in Athens, said during a recent food distribution event, many Bangladeshi migrant workers asked for cash support.

Some 30,000 Bangladeshi workers live in Greece and at least 1,085 received the food aid, she said.

The Greek government recently allowed reopening of some economic activities on a limited scale, bringing relief to thousands of migrant workers, she added.

Arfanul Hoque, labour welfare counsellor at Bangladesh embassy in Rome, said many workers were asking for financial support to pay the rents.

The mission has not been able to help them financially because the funds provided by the government were inadequate, he said, adding that a worker usually needs between 300 and 400 euros to pay the monthly rent in an Italian city.

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