Libya Tribune

By Nayma Qayum

What country are most of Europe’s illegal migrants coming from? You might think Syria or some other war-torn nation. You would be wrong.

According to the International Organization for Migration, the top “sending” country is a democracy that claims to have made strides in human development: Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi migrants are paying between $8,000 and $9,000 just to get to Libya, and an additional $700 for an uncertain passage across the Mediterranean to Italy.

The vast majority are looking for work — and migrant work has always been risky. Thousands of Bangladeshi workers have died  working in Middle Eastern countries.

More than 8,000 bodies were returned to Bangladesh from 2004 to 2009, out of roughly 3.7 million Bangladeshi workers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain  and Oman in 2009.

Employers often subject workers to inhumane working conditions and hold them hostage by confiscating their passports.

These migrant workers are trapped in foreign countries, unable to return home.

If it’s dangerous, why do so many Bangladeshis migrate?

For many Bangladeshis, migration is one of the few paths to upward mobility. Although the country has reduced poverty from 44.2 percent in 1991 to 18.5 percent in 2010, that’s still a lot of people.

What’s more, the nation faces massive structural challenges: a large population of 164.8 million, of which roughly 34 percent live  in urban centers; floodwaters, rising sea levels  and encroaching salt water pushing people out of coastal areas and into densely populated cities; and a high graduate unemployment rate.

With the job market saturated, many young men and women seek employment abroad. Fully 5.5 percent of Bangladesh’s population is international migrant workers. Four out of their top five destinations are in the Middle East — Oman, Qatar, UAE  and Bahrain.

Harsh working conditions have now pushed their movement to Europe, and in particular, Italy. In Rome, Bangladeshis run mini-marts and work as street vendors, and have established themselves in local communities. They even run their own community organizations.

According to the World Bank, those migrants send home billions of U.S. dollars, a large boost to the country’s economic development at home.