Bangladesh's shame in the refugee crisis

Refugees fleeing civil war in Syria or persecution in Myanmar is understandable. But why do Bangladeshis get onto rickety boats when they have home and country?

Ethnic Rohingya Muslim men from Myanmar sitting in lines at a confinement area situated amid a palm oil plantation at Bayeun, after more than 400 Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh were rescued by Indonesian fishermen off the coast of Aceh
Ethnic Rohingya Muslim men from Myanmar sitting in lines at a confinement area situated amid a palm oil plantation at Bayeun, after more than 400 Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh were rescued by Indonesian fishermen off the coast of Aceh province on May 20, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP 

For about two weeks last month, the media in the West was ablaze with news of hundreds of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean while attempting to cross illegally to European shores.

These were people fleeing war-torn areas of Syria, and other African countries, desperate to land in any country that would give them asylum. They were in boats hardly meant to carry passengers, but these desperate people who were packed like sardines did not care how risky their journey would be.

Among those who survived was a Bangladeshi who had thrown himself into this hapless lot, but luckily escaped death.

I did not follow his plight as this was not reported in the press, but I guess he was handed over by the local authorities to our diplomatic mission in Spain.

Refugees fleeing war-torn or famine-stricken areas to neighbouring countries or even further is easily understandable.

Syria is no place for normal living with a civil war going on for the last three years and the country fractured into parts.

The flight of African refugees is a phenomenon that has been ongoing since a large number of countries on that continent went from one conflict to another.

What boggles the mind is when people from countries that are purportedly stable seek such desperate means as crossing the seas in dangerous vessels, all in the hope of making it to a liveable place. The Bangladeshi survivor of the Mediterranean shipwreck is a small example of the desperation of our own nationals to leave their country in search of a better existence.

There have been many more like him who have tried, some successfully, to take a life-threatening journey across the continents to earn a living.

But the story of the thousands now hitting the headlines, caught between life and death on the high seas of South-east Asia, is at a different level. Although a large number are reportedly refugees from Myanmar - the Rohingya - the rest are from Bangladesh, good and proper.

And this takes us to the nub of the problem. The flight of the Rohingya is understandable as in the case of Syrians or Africans leaving a war zone.

The Rohingya are not accepted as citizens in their own country, and they have been hounded for years. They will go to any lengths to leave their country.

What drives people who have a country, and most likely a home, to take on such life-threatening risks? Is it the lure of higher income, better living, or just simply a more secure life?

Our people go to extraordinary lengths to go to countries in the Middle East and Europe, and perhaps Malaysia. They pay hundreds of thousands to brokers who make arrangements for their employment and travel.

But who would board a rickety fishing vessel and leave for unknown destinations, knowing this could be their final journey?

The story of hundreds of people, mostly of Bangladeshi origin, now marooned on the high seas off Indonesia and Malaysia should be on the conscience of the countries adjoining the seas, but, most importantly, of Bangladesh.

It is possible the current floating people would be rescued and given some temporary shelter. It is also possible some, notably the Rohingya, may get asylum.

But the remaining Bangladeshis will be repatriated. They may or may not like it, but at least they will not die like the hundreds who reportedly died in the jungles of Thailand earlier. But will this stop future flights of desperate Bangladeshis?

There are now attempts by the government to track human traffickers and arraign them before the law. Human traffickers exist and do their business because there are clients who are desperate to leave their country.

And why do they want to leave the country? It is not just for better work opportunities or higher income; it is also because there is no employment in the country where they live. It is also because there is no way to have a subsistence income.

In Bangladesh, we live in a paradoxical society. We have impressive statistics that show a growing national income, steadily rising exports, and an impressive flow of foreign earnings. What these statistics do not show are the pathetic state of our rural economy, the rising unemployment of rural youth, and the growing disparity of rural and urban income.

Our planners spend more time on industrialisation and the supply of energy for industry, and less on erasing the menace of rural poverty and the desperation of our unemployed youth.

Stopping a few human traffickers from doing their business will not stem the flow of desperate people seeking desperate means to leave the country.

If we really mean business, we have to focus our planning and strategy on employment and income opportunities for our rural mass.

The writer is a political analyst and commentator.