Plotters' naive fantasies will end up punishing honest migrant labour

Bangladesh's readers woke up to a story of a few of its migrant labourers arrested over an alleged terror plot. The news came from Singapore, a country known in Bangladesh as a role model of prosperity and for its peace-loving people.

The news reported that the group was found with a document titled Target Of Enimies Forces Need To Kill. The spelling mistake was in the original. This so-called "hit list" contained every Bangladeshi agency, excluding the army. The list surprisingly started with Border Guard Bangladesh and then Rapid Action Battalion, the Bangladesh navy, and air force.

Number four on the list reads CID, which the plotters de-abbreviated as "Civil Information Defence". This misnomer is an ignorance of the highest order because all Bangladeshis know that CID stands for Criminal Investigation Department, one of the oldest units of the Bangladesh police. The very strange combination of unlikely targets and data errors on this list is leading to some in Bangladesh to consider a conspiracy theory - that these men were set up by a foreign intelligence agency.

Singapore is a global trading hub that is run by a professional, incorruptible and meritocratic government. The administration is pro-business and is free of ideological bias.

Therefore, the news of Bangladeshi labourers being arrested there will have an extremely adverse effect on the recruitment of Bangladeshi labour around the globe. Countries will now be wary of inviting Bangladeshi labourers for the fear of terror.

But a country of 160 million people needs migrant labour income for the strength and stability of its economy. Last year, the World Bank recategorised Bangladesh from "lower income" to "lower-middle income country", based on per capita income of US$1,314 (S$1,785). Money earned abroad and sent back to Bangladesh by migrant labour was the second-largest pillar of this success story.

Cleaners from Bangladesh in the Tampines Changkat ward. Each year, 400,000 Bangladeshis migrate for work overseas. Last year, garment exports earned US$26 billion (S$35 billion) for Bangladesh, while remittance sent home by migrant labour was US$15 billion. These migrants not only build the economy of Bangladesh but also the world's. ST FILE PHOTO

Each year, 400,000 Bangladeshis migrate for temporary work overseas, and usually return home within five to 10 years. During their time abroad, they live in minimal conditions and send all earnings home. Last year, garment exports earned US$26 billion for Bangladesh, while remittance sent home by migrant labour was US$15 billion.

Singapore will feel concerned about the "radicalisation" of migrant labourers, but as an observer of Bangladeshi politics, this group appears to me as nothing more than a bunch of fantasy seekers. After reading the news, I could not figure out which stereotype I should use to categorise a group that "plots" to target the air force and navy of the nation.

Bangladeshi politics is currently contentious mainly due to the current Awami League government holding on to power through a controversial 2014 election that was boycotted by the main opposition political parties. Given where the current political fractures are, any group targeting the Bangladeshi navy or air force, of all organisations, has some basic flaws in understanding who controls Bangladeshi politics.

No serious terror organisation would make the CID a target - that is too unimportant an organisation within our power structure.

These so-called plotters, who appear rather naive, would not meet the standards to be Al-Qaeda or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria operatives. The leading newspaper Prothom Alo reported that the police were unsure if the 27 Bangladeshis Singapore deported in January were engaged in terror-related activity.

But whatever it may be, the irresponsibility of these labourers is reprehensible. Their fantasies, and resultant arrests, may lead to a dramatic scaling back of Bangladeshi migrant workers' access to overseas labour markets. These migrant labourers not only build the economy of Bangladesh but also the world's. Singapore could not be the success it is today without the contribution of thousands of Bangladeshi migrant labourers over the decades.

As a result of the arrest of these fantasy-soaked "plotters", millions of poor, honest, hard-working and low-wage workers would lose the opportunity to work in foreign countries. That is the real price Bangladesh will pay in future for the folly of a few individuals.

  • Zia Hassan is a Bangladeshi blogger, whose essays have been published in Al Jazeera and The Hindu.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2016, with the headline 'Plotters' naive fantasies will end up punishing honest migrant labour'. Print Edition | Subscribe