Bangladeshis on board the Aquarius in May 2017. Photo: Charlotte Boitiaux
Bangladeshis on board the Aquarius in May 2017. Photo: Charlotte Boitiaux

Two years ago, there were hardly any Bangladeshi migrants like Ahad heading for Europe, but falling oil prices and reports of human rights abuses in the Gulf region are prompting many Bangladeshis to head for European shores.

With his drawn features and dark circles around his eyes, Ahad seems decades older than his 28 years. When he was plucked from the Mediterranean and hoisted onto the MS Aquarius off the southern Italian coast in May 2017, his nationality came as a surprise to aid workers on board the rescue ship. The emaciated man with a vacant, lost gaze was from Bangladesh. Ahad comes from a country located more than 7,500 km away from southern Italian shores.

That day, 90 migrants who had set off from Libya in a small boat were saved by the crew on board the Aquarius, a ship run by SOS Mediterranee. Out of the 90 migrants, 67 were Bangladeshi.

Over the past two years, Bangladeshis have been among the top ten nationalities seeking asylum in France. "It’s a relatively recent migratory phenomenon," explains Jérémie Codron, a Bangladesh specialist at the Paris-based Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (Inalco). "More and more Bangladeshis are crossing the Mediterranean, which was not the case before."

'I preferred not to go to the Gulf'

Ahad’s long, perilous journey began with a flight from the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka to Oman, from where he travelled to Bahrain, Turkey and Libya before reaching European shores.

But for Ahad, as for many Bangladeshis aboard the MS Aquarius, Europe was not the first destination choice. "My family has sent me to Libya to make money," he explains. "Many Bangladeshis are going there to find a job."

In the past, the Bangladeshis traditionally headed for the oil-rich Gulf kingdoms of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar. For residents of the impoverished, Muslim-majority South Asian nation, the Gulf - with its oil wealth, high standards of living and demand for cheap, low-skilled labour - was a perfect destination.

But the fall in oil prices coupled with numerous reports of human rights abuses - including the confiscation of migrant workers’ passports under the "Kefala" system which sponsors foreign employees - have stemmed the Gulf-bound influx.

"I could also go to the Gulf countries, but I thought it was dangerous," he explains. "I know it's very hard there and I preferred not to go."

A crash course on the horrors of Libya

The young Bangladeshi therefore headed for Libya, whose oil and gas resources have been synonymous with employment opportunities for many South Asians. But the 2011 fall of Muammar Gaddafi has also plunged the North African nation into chaos and instability - a reality that Ahad had no idea about back home.

The young Bangladeshi was about to get a crash course in the horrors of a war-wrecked workplace.

"When I arrived in Libya, I found a job. But then the person who employed me asked me to work with a Libyan family. I hesitated, but I was beaten and had no choice. For three months, I lived in hell in this house. I was not fed every day, I was often beaten... Then I was made to ask my parents to pay a ransom for my freedom. My family is poor, but they were forced to pay for my freedom," the young migrant explains. "I thought about killing myself, I couldn’t take it anymore."

When he was finally released, Ahad hesitated about his options: should he return to Bangladesh or try to reach European shores, which are not far from Libya?

For Bangladesh expert Codron, this dilemma is a new phenomenon in the history of Bangladeshi migration, one that has opened up with the growing tide of migrants taking the Mediterranean route to Europe. "Most of these Bangladeshi migrants now prefer to come to Europe rather than return home as they were doing before," explains Codron.

And so it was that Ahad stepped foot on European shores. "I did not want to come, I do not know anything about Europe. But I could not go home empty-handed, my family spent everything they had to save me in Libya, so I crossed the sea," he says simply.

Dreaming of a job in France

Ahad is now stuck at a reception center in Caltagirone, Sicily. Italy has seen a massive rise in Bangladeshi migrant flows over the past few months. According to the Italian Interior Ministry and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 4,645 Bangladeshi nationals arrived in Italy in April 2017. In April 2016, there were only three.

Most Bangladeshis leaving their home country are looking for work: a 2013 World Bank report found that 41 percent of Bangladeshi youth are not employed and lack education or job training.

Like most of his countrymen, Ahad ultimately wants to find and job - in Paris. "Italy is not good for finding a job," he explains. He would like to seek asylum in France.

But he’s not very optimistic, and rightly so. The vast majority of Bangladeshis are denied asylum in France. In 2016, of the 3,700 Bangladeshi asylum applications examined, only 267 were accepted, around 7 percent, according to a report by Ofpra  (Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides). In comparison, of the 4,166 Syrian asylum requests, 3,857 - 92.5 percent - were accepted.

Strong community ties

So what happens to the rejected asylum-seekers? Why are they invisible in the public sphere?

In the makeshift migrant camps of Paris, Bangladeshis are a marginal presence. "There are a few Bangladeshis in front of the humanitarian center [in La Chapelle, Paris], but not very many," says Antoine Bazin, from Utopia 56, an NGO working with migrants in France. 

"I haven’t seen many of them so far." It’s the same in Calais. "We don’t see many people from Bangladesh," says Gaël Manzi, also a member of Utopia 56.

Codron is not surprised that Bangladeshis are rarely spotted on Parisian sidewalks or in unhealthy makeshift camps. "Unlike the Sudanese, Eritreans and Syrians in particular, they have an impressive organisation and there’s a strong sense of solidarity in the Bangladeshi community of Ile-de-France [the Paris metropolitan area]," he explains.

"This means that despite the fact that they have arrived in France relatively recently, few people find themselves on the streets. It is a social fact that is not well known and hardly studied," he adds.


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