As is evident from numerous official and unofficial data, thousands of illegal foreign workers are staying in Bangladesh. The state certainly needs to look into these workers' status in a sympathetic manner, because many expatriate Bangladeshi labourers are also found to be working in foreign lands without required documents or papers. The people of Bangladesh also expect humane treatment of all migrant workers - both domestic and foreign, as remittances play a huge role in socio-economic growth of many countries. In this backdrop, a well-considered repatriation policy for illegal foreign workers is now needed alongside boosting institutional, legal, financial and infrastructural frameworks for dealing with them.
According to a research report released by TIB earlier this year, maximum numbers of foreign workers work here in the garments cum textiles sector of the country. Besides, innumerable foreigners also serve in various development projects, power plants, international agencies, NGOs, multinational companies, hospitals, hotels and restaurants. Many of them are taking away money illegally, which is estimated to be a whopping Taka 264 billion per year, thereby causing an annual tax revenue leakage of Taka 120 billion. Although the number of legal foreigners has decreased by about 75 percent in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic, official figures suggest that they currently stand at over 20 thousand, with Indians accounting for more than 50 percent and the Chinese about 15 percent. Even the Government of India acknowledged some months ago that Bangladesh was among the top five remittance-earning countries for them. It is therefore critical for Bangladesh to examine thoroughly whether the foreigners are paying due taxes and are earning money legally.
Observers suspect that Bangladesh might already have been paying a heavy price for laxity in monitoring illegal foreign workers. According to a recent media report, the government has been quite deficient in its surveillance of over 12 thousand such workers from 108 countries, with India alone accounting for about three-fourths of the defaulters. These workers are staying in Bangladesh illegally after the expiry of their passports and visas. There are complaints that they siphon off money to foreign lands through 'Hundi' by evading payment of local taxes. Some are also getting involved in crime-syndicates or criminal activities.
According to immigration authorities, foreign citizens are currently awarded 33 categories of visas for entering Bangladesh. Among these foreigners, a segment holding visa-on-arrival ('VoA'), 'B' (for businessmen), 'A3' (for foreign specialists, consultants and staffs engaged in projects, as per agreements between Bangladesh Government and development partners), 'T' (travel) and 'P' (sportsmen) visas stay back even after expiry of their visa-tenure. The highest categories of defaulters appear to be those coming with travel or business visas.
The Special Branch of the police force is officially tasked with the responsibility of monitoring cum surveillance of foreigners. But it is alleged that they lack the necessary resources including adequate funding cum infrastructure support for carrying out their job properly, which includes detention and repatriation of illegal foreign workers. What is required foremost is concrete political decision at the top for identifying, legalising, or deporting these workers in order to uphold the country's interest. This in turn needs to be translated into appropriate laws, rules, policies, institutional framework and infrastructure set-ups in order to deal with the problem in a comprehensive cum holistic manner.
The law enforcement agencies have tended to avoid the arrests of illegal foreign workers often in the 'greater interest of the nation'. Besides, these foreigners have to be brought to the courts after arrest, and a lingering litigation process might then ensue under the existing legal framework. Many of the foreigners resort to the time-consuming path of continuing the legal challenge after obtaining bails. Insiders also say, limitations faced by authorities in arresting and deporting foreign workers frequently include hidden or non-existent passports, for which it becomes difficult to ascertain the citizenship status of defaulters. These reasons are sometimes cited by law-enforcers for their slack attitude towards the problem. But this lenient outlook cannot be justified, as it is not written on anyone's body whether he is a law-breaking saboteur or an economic migrant. Consequently, the laxity of law enforcers may invite big trouble if the holes in the surveillance system become bigger.
There are interim arrangements in many other countries of the world for swift deportation of illegal foreign workers. They are usually kept in 'safe homes' or 'detention centres' after bringing them under safe custody. The former option is preferable as the workers are often economic migrants or refugees and therefore should not be treated in a hostile or dishonourable manner. They should also not be looked at through the prism of criminal law. But sadly, Bangladesh does not even have a detention centre till now, as a result of which the arrested foreigners have to be kept in jails. That in turn necessitates filing of cases, which is time-consuming and requires additional funding.
It is quite apparent from the above that illicit human traffickers and other suspicious groups or entities are likely to abuse or take advantage of the loopholes and weaknesses existing in the legal cum institutional framework of Bangladesh with regard to foreign workers. The arrests of over 50 people from 8 African countries recently on charges of involvement in crimes like debit and credit card frauds, dealing with counterfeit currency, IT-related deceptions, contract-marriages, drug-related offences, etc. indicate that it is high time for the government to tighten its control cum surveillance in these matters.
A comprehensive policy cum strategy should therefore be framed by involving all stakeholders engaged in the employment, monitoring and detection of foreign workers. The illegal foreign workers while in detention should be kept in safe homes until their deportation, in line with The Foreigners Order 1951 under The Foreigners Act 1946; and the immigration police should be allocated money for their repatriation. There is an urgent need now for rectifying the situation in the light of existing realities.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly. Email: [email protected]