AS LEGAL channels for labour migration from Bangladesh have shrunk due to malpractices in the arrangements by both private agencies and the government, desperate jobseekers take the dangerous sea route to Malaysia.
Dreaming of high-paid jobs, they fall prey to a third party - transnational gangs pledging a secure sea voyage - and end up in a vicious web of abuses, including torture and captivity en route, forced labour or humiliating deportation.
Manpower export from Bangladesh to Malaysia has always been fraught with anomalies since it formally began in 1992. Corruption by some Bangladesh High Commission officials in Kuala Lumpur left as many as 50,000 workers illegal in 1996.
The burgeoning South-east Asian economy kept its doors closed to Bangladeshi workers for nearly a decade from 1997, except in 2000 when some 20,000 were granted visas.
The migration resumed in 2006 and continued till early 2009.
"Such repeated closing and opening of the Malaysian labour market was never the case for Nepal or Indonesia. But Bangladesh faced it mostly because of corruption," said Mr Mohammad Harun Al Rashid, coordinator of CARAM Asia, a regional network of organisations working on migration and health issues.
The rate was 84,000 taka when the private sector managed the recruitment in 2006 and early 2009. But studies found that workers were charged higher rates, by around 20,000 taka each, Mr Harun told The Daily Star over the phone from Kuala Lumpur.
Brokers, human resource managers of employers and outsourcing companies, and certain Malaysian officials are believed to have shared the extra money charged.
Another source of their moneymaking was having way more workers than required, showing fake demand.
In 2007 and 2008, over 40,000 Bangladeshi workers were sent but thousands of them remained unemployed or detained, and finally returned home empty-handed.
Mr Talat Mahmud, then labour counsellor of the Bangladesh High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, allegedly went through many documents without verifying job demands as he had good connections with the manpower brokers in Malaysia. He was called back to Dhaka following Kuala Lumpur's cancellation of 55,000 work visas in early 2009.
Malaysia's immigration director-general Wahid Md Don was found guilty of accepting a RM60,000 bribe for approval of 4,337 visa applications for Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia on July 10, 2008.
On Oct 30, 2013, the official was sentenced to six years in prison and fined RM300,000.
Now with the government-to-government arrangement in place, the flow of bribe money to brokers and officials has stopped, said a Bangladeshi recruiting agent who has Malaysian business links.
"They now look to Nepal, India or Vietnam for workers," he said, requesting anonymity.
The recruitment from those countries is done through the private sector, which in Bangladesh is plagued by irregularities due to lack of regulations and monitoring.
Malaysian employers too are turning away from Bangladesh. They often complain of the laid-back attitude of government officials and bureaucratic tangles in the government-to-government arrangement, said Mr Ruhul Amin, joint secretary-general of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies.
The agencies had talks with the government several times about the issues but things hardly changed, he said.
"So, Bangladeshi jobseekers are going illegally," Mr Ruhul added, pointing to the country's surplus labour and limited job opportunities.
Dr Zaid Bakht, research director of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, said that every year, some two million youths join the labour force in the country.
Some 60 per cent of them are absorbed into domestic and foreign labour markets.
The rest remain either unemployed or underemployed; many often become desperate to find jobs abroad, even illegally.
Due to various irregularities by private recruiting agencies, Saudi Arabia imposed restrictions on Bangladeshi workers in 2008 and the UAE in 2012. Kuwait stopped taking Bangladeshi workers in 2006.
The three countries were the biggest job market for Bangladeshis.
Before 2008, between 50,000 and 100,000 Bangladeshis migrated to Saudi Arabia for jobs every year. Over the past few years, the number has come down to 5,000 to 7,000.
In the case of the UAE, the number was about 15,000, which is now 10,000 to 12,000.
Many youths now want to try their luck in Malaysia, which has an annual labour shortage of some 10,000.
One of them is Mr Mohammad Yakub, 27, of Paikarchar in Narsingdi. He used to work at a power loom factory which often remained closed.
A broker promised him a safe voyage to Malaysia and a monthly income of 50,000 taka, and Mr Yakub decided to give it a try.
But en route, he landed in a Thai jungle.
Held captive and tortured, ransomed and released, and jailed, he finally returned home in March this year.
His family had to pay a ransom of 25,000 taka for his release.
"We had to sell half of our homestead and borrow the rest of the amount," said his mother, Ms Sahera Begum, sitting in her hut at Kundapadi village.
"Our son has become too weak. After his return, he got a job at a local factory, but he cannot work hard as before."
Mr Yakub at least managed to return home. To determine how many lives were lost in the attempts at migration requires further studies.
THE DAILY STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK