Dhaka, June 30, 2015 (Alochonaa):
Irregular migration by boats is a global problem. In 2014, about 350,000 people from conflict-ridden zones and low-income countries of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia risked crossing seas through irregular and dangerous routes managed by transnational networks of human traffickers. According to the UN Refugee Agency- UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the number of people making similar crossings to reach Europe, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia from poorer countries is reaching record highs.
These ‘boat people’ pose challenges for policy makers on several fronts. Governments of European states, the Middle East, Australia and Asia are now concerned about framing and reframing sustainable policy approaches to (a) stop people from leaving their homelands by boats, (b) stopping boats full of children, women and men coming into their shores, (c) hunting down trafficking networks, (d) increase cooperation in diplomatic and security fronts to search and rescue and (e) maintain a delicate balance between human rights, local immigration policy and international commitments to protect refugees.
However there is no single policy implication for boat people. Indeed the reason behind such diverse policy discourse is that the drivers of boat migration are diverse and complex, with local, national, regional and global dynamics behind people’s motivation for cross-seas by boats. This article seeks to begin to unpick these dynamics by sharing some initial findings from a field study conducted in Bangladesh that sought to understand why people leave their country by boats.
Informed researchers of migration are aware that many of the boat people in South Asia are Rohingyas. They are fleeing Myanmar due to state driven persecution. While it is understandable why Rohingya children, women and men from Myanmar are opting for irregular migration through the Bay of Bengal and Andaman sea to make new lives in East Asian countries and even to Europe and Australia, it remains a puzzle why Bangladeshi men in their tens and thousands are following the Rohingyas in irregular migration through the seas.
According to a recent report released by the UNHCR, ‘in the first quarter of 2015, 25,000 people are estimated to have departed in irregular maritime movements from the Bay of Bengal. The departure rate in the first quarter of 2015 was approximately double the departure rate reported in the first quarters of 2013 and 2014’. The UNHCR confirmed that over 40 to 60% of these people were Rohingyas while rest were Bangladeshis. This journey into the sea is precarious as according to the same UNHCR report, ‘since October 2014, as many as 620 people died out of starvation, dehydration, beating by boat crews and sinking of boats’. Recent media reports have revealed harrowing tales of migrants being captive in inhuman conditions, raped and murdered while their bodies were dumped in mass graves situated in the jungles of Thailand and Malaysia.
Bangladesh became an independent country in 1971 and it is the home for over 160 million people. The country has made remarkable socio-economic progress since then. In terms of social progress, Bangladesh is ahead of its neighbor India, a fact well recognized by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen. It is hailed as a model for reducing hunger. Furthermore it is the home of Dr. Muhammad Yunus, who won a Nobel Peace Prize and was famous for his intention to put poverty back in the museum . In this respect, it is notable that the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) said in 2014 that, ‘Bangladesh graduated from Low Human Development (LHD) category to Medium Human Development (MHD) category Besides, the country is listed among the top five fastest growing economies of the world. In short, Bangladesh is a country full of potential.
Why then do Bangladeshis risk their lives to cross-seas?
Inspired by this question, the Bangladesh Institute of Social Research Trust (BISRT) conducted a field study in June 2015 in Cox’s bazar and Teknaf, two coastal towns of Bangladesh alongside with the capital city Dhaka- a popular destination for internal migration. These towns and surrounding areas are known as hubs for irregular migration by boats. In-depth interviews and a focus group discussion were conducted among those who are addressing the irregular migration problem. For that reason, members of law enforcing agencies, intelligence agencies, journalist community, civil society groups, international organizations and policy-making community took part. In order to understand the human impact of irregular migration, former people traffickers, family members of missing migrants and migrants who were successfully entered by boats and people who were held captive by the human traffickers in a foreign land or arrested by law enforcers were also interviewed.
The initial findings suggest that there is no single answer to the question why Bangladeshis favor risky sea migration. The context for irregular migration in Bangladesh is complex and multiple factors are at play. However, it was not very difficult to isolate the global roots of this local problem. Interestingly, the Bangladesh case shows how apparently remote and underdeveloped villages of the country are somehow influenced by globalization and how people living in the bottom of the “global society” are addressing globalization in multiple ways. It is beyond the capacity of this article to share all but two are worth exploring here.
Firstly, Bangladesh is not outside of the global scenario of the rising inequality. While neo-liberal economists and think tanks of the country are on a mission to project the economic progress the country has made, a vast number of people here, like many other place on earth, are struggling to live a decent quality of life. One reason is that wealth is unequally distributed. While some textile exporters to the West enjoy an annual turnover around $200 million, many are struggling to even earn $10 per day. Some of this group may earn enough to be classified as over the international poverty line but are nonetheless not happy with their lives and want to see a rapid boost in their living conditions. Some interviewees told how relatives had successfully made it to Malaysia by boats and, therefore, been able to improve the quality of the lives of their families back home several folds.
Such “success stories” have inspired many living in the villages of Bangladesh and despite harrowing tales of migrants’ fates, it was not hard to find support for boat-migration. “What would people do here? There is not much work, little food here, I support people trying their lucks in risky ways in the sea and if they could make it to Malaysia somehow their lives would change forever,” Manjur Alam, a fisherman of Shahporir Deep, a village in Teknaf, said. Manjur’s brother left the country several years ago by boat and was able to elevate the financial status of his family back home. “My brother needed US$6 everyday to sustain but he earned about US$2 a day at home, and now he earns about US $10 per day, why would he stay back here?,” Manjur asked.
Secondly, Bangladesh is what the World Bank describes as the “Ground Zero”; where climate change, food insecurity and rising rural poverty interact. Indeed despite Bangladesh’s relatively low contribution into the global carbon emissions, its people are paying a high price since rising sea levels, increasing salinity in its arable lands, frequent cyclones, and river erosion have all contributed to rising poverty and food insecurity in rural. In response, many rural people have migrated into urban areas. Others still have been lured into the nets of transnational networks of human smugglers and traffickers and attempted to cross-seas. “After losing my homestead into a river in Sirajgang I have tried my luck by pulling rickshaws in the capital city for few years but it did not pay me well. So I decided to follow my cousin who went to Malaysia by boat. However, I am not fortunate enough like my cousin as I was caught by the Thai police in the border of Thailand and Malaysia,” Zahirul Islam, a 30-year-old rickshawpuller in Dhaka who now lives in a Dhaka slum said.
The Bangladesh case demonstrates how people who are living at the bottom of the global society and who are left behind by the process of globalization are adapting to changing climatic and socio-economic conditions. In some cases this has led them to attempt to elevate the quality of their lives by taking rickety boats to sea. Indeed it is a hard task for Bangladesh to address the issue of boat people because many of them want to take the risk. To them, the idea of reaching a “prosperous foreign land” is often the only way out of a endless sea of problems at home. In this sense, Bangladesh’s boat people should be seen as localised response to a global problem.
*Mubashar Hasan is a research fellow, Bangladesh Institute of Social Research Trust and a PhD candidate at the School of Government and IR, Griffith University. He is also the founder of Alochonaa, .Cross posted via Global Policy Journal.
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