HOPE FOR OUR UNSUNG HEROES | Dr Chowdhury Rafiqul Abrar, Executive Director of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU)

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In a conversation, Dr Chowdhury Rafiqul Abrar, Executive Director of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) elaborates the role of the organization in supporting the migrants and refugees over the years, the challenges and how migration can help achieve our SDG goals
RMMRU has created plenty of success stories by supporting the migrants and refugees over the years. How has the organization been supporting the migrant workers?

RMMRU has been advocating for the rights and dignity of labor migrants of Bangladesh since 1995 by engaging in research, policy advocacy,and grassroot mobilization. When RMMRU started its journey, there was no involvement of NGOs in the labor migration issue and the assumption that the labor migrants are reasonably well-off and do not require policy attention was pervasive. So, people did not pay much heed to their needs. As this was an unexplored sector, some of us were curious to know in detail. We were appalled with our research results that demonstrated migrant workers were facing neglect and disrespect at every step of the migrant process.

With a band of energetic students of Dhaka University some of us continued researching and preparing policy documents. Our agenda was to ensure labor migrant’ rights are protected. Consequently, we started organizing policy consultations, seminars and the like. Our collaboration with political leaders, members of parliaments, NGOs, and various influencers and the media interest that was generated in our work emboldened our initiative. Notably, we always strived to bring the migrants to speak for themselves and share their own struggles. In doing all these, RMMRU made modest contribution in amending the policy with regard to migration of women, in the initial drafting of the Overseas Employment Policy, 2006, the Overseas Employment and Migration Act 2013, in advocating for allowing micro-finance institutions to be the last leg of remittance transfer, in bringing an end to the monopoly over remittance transfer business by a mega company and also for ratification of 1990 UN Convention on Migrants.

We found good laws and policies do not automatically lead to change. So we began working for mobilization of migrants at the grassroots to demand services from government institutions and facilitating formation of Migrant’s Rights Protection Committees in the rural areas. Our team guided the migrants to take services from government institutions. Eventually in the respective areas government institutions became more responsive to their needs. This is how RMMRU has been supporting the labor migrants of Bangladesh.

We have heard of migrant workers sending a record amount of money back to the country. This is of course relieving and praise worthy. How is the government trying to make the best use of such a surge and what is being done in favor of these hard working countrymen?

There was a surge in the remittance flow but it appears to be tapering off now. The government is surely acknowledging the problems and issues that affect labor migrants. It extended a 2 percent incentive to remittances of migrants and it had an impact. ProbashiKallyan Bank has loan programmes for returnee migrants and is considering several programmes for them.
However, we must bear in mind that the returnee migrants are not a homogenous group. There are different categories of returnee migrants. Those who want to engage in entrepreneurial activities should be imparted training in financial literacy, book keeping and provided support in accessing the market. Without the knowledge of effective loan management, starting a new venture could be risky. Secondly, those who want to work should be linked to the local labour market and there has to be serious engagement in skill development.

Thirdly, suitable instruments may be introduced for the returnees interested in financial investments. Many returnees suffer from trauma and require psychological counselling and support. Experience of violence in the destination country inflicts mental harm on them. Hence, a successful need-based integration should be taken into account to fulfill the needs of the different categories of migrants.

We are increasingly hearing reports of returnee Bangladeshi migrant workers from the Gulf States falling victim to wage theft. Why are Bangladeshi migrant workers increasingly facing this issue? What can be done to ensure our migrants get appropriately paid when they return home?

The issue of wage theft was always there. The pandemic situation has exacerbated this long drawn problem. Both the countries of origin and the country of destination had generally ignored the protection aspects of labor migrants. The former’s main interest was remittances. Therefore, protection was not high on the agenda. The competition in the labor market among various labor sending countries is an aggravating factor. Moreover there is no coordination and understanding among labor sending countries about the minimum wage and other entitlements of migrant workers. And so, it has been the buyers’ market.

They are the ones who dictate. Unfortunately for Bangladesh, it was even worse due to the unhealthy competition of recruiting agencies. Such competition hiked up the migration cost at a phenomenal rate. After the onset of COVID situation, the migrant workers were treated even more dismally in the countries of destination. Their employers summarily terminated their contracts without compensating them. People were taken to prisons and deported for minor offences such as not abiding the lockdown provisions. So, all these in a way magnified the problems these migrant workers normally endured.

Our recent study on 1160 returnees noted that on an average, they lost Tk. 1,80,000, in the countries of destination as wages and other entitlements. Hence, it is incumbent on the government to ensure that the lost wages and other entitlements of the workers are recovered.

Our government must take into consideration that the past treatment of migrants in the destination countries was not right. The workers were not given fair and respectful treatment. Sending countries should negotiate from a position of strength and impress upon destination countries that at the end of the day, the latter need labor migrants for the development of their countries and thus migrants rights and dignity should be upheld.

What are the challenges faced by RMMRU in the immigration or repatriation process of the migrants amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?

It is true no country in the world was prepared for a situation like this. Being a dispensable lot in any crisis situation, short term labour migrants bore the brunt of the pandemic. As labour migrants were being forcibly repatriated from various Gulf states, RMMRU tried to capture their experiences and highlight their plight through preparing a Situation Report in the first week of April, 2020 and organised a press conference to disseminate its recommendations.

It called on the government to provide financial grants to the returnee migrants, members of their families and also to the families who stopped receiving remittances and institute reintegration programmes for them. Subsequently, it mobilised other civil society organizations and jointly appealed to the prime minister for such support and wrote to the UN Secretary General demanding his attention to the plight of the migrants in receiving countries. It also conducted a real time policy research about the immediate and long-term needs of the returnee migrants and published several policy briefs. So far, RMMRU organised ten webinars in its series titled ‘Build Back Better: Covid 19 and Migration’ that came up with concrete policy recommendations.

An important achievement of RMMRU was through the intervention of the High Court it facilitated securing the unconditional release of several hundred returnee labour migrants who were wrongfully detained by the authorities following their return from the Gulf states, Vietnam and Lebanon for “tarnishing the image of” and “hatching conspiracy against the country”. By generating evidence on repatriation and wage theft experiences RMMRU is also at the forefront for demanding justice on behalf of the victims of wage theft at national and regional levels.

Please tell us how the contribution of migration can help us in achieving the SDGs.

Migration is recognized as a major tool for alleviation of poverty and attainment of the SDGs. Remittances play a critical role in migrant households’ health (Goal 3) and education (Goal 4). The increased feminisation of international labour has a major bearing for the process of gender equality (Goal 5). Surely a lot needs to be achieved to ensure decent work (Goal 8) conditions of migrants. Likewise other goals on sustainable cities (Goal 11) and climate action (Goal 13).are also very relevant for migration.

Over the years, how much has the scenario of immigration process of the migrant labor applicants progressed? How has RMMRU contributed to this development?

It goes without saying that Bangladesh has made reasonable progress in this sector, framing national policies and laws, ratifying international conventions and compact, and setting up specialised institutions. So labor migration has been an important agenda of the government.

Despite all these successes, the condition of labor migration is far from desirable. While a lot of work has been done on remittance transfer, we cannot claim our labour migrants’ rights are protected and that they are treated with dignity. This has been a problem both at sending and destination ends. A big issue is that despite having reasonably decent policies, laws and ratification of international treaties we have been unable to enforce and implement those. It is high time that we acknowledge the reality. Above all, we must pay heed to the felt needs of the migrants and ensure that they can voice their concerns.

Over the last 28 years, RMMRU has been engaged in this sector with research, policy, and grassroot mobilization. It began as a collective initiative of socially conscious students and faculty members of Dhaka University and a few from the legal fraternity. We are proud of our collective achievements and do believe that together we can make further contributions in future for this marginalised group. We envision along with generating new knowledge, we continue to engage with migrants themselves to bring about policy change. Not to mention, our firm commitment remains to uphold their rights and dignity.


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