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IRAQ: For Bangladeshis, War's End Means Return to Jobs

by Qurratul Ain TahminaInter Press Service
April 8th, 2003

DHAKA-- The rural market hubs on the way to Hagradi village all have one common sight: hanged effigies of George W. Bush, with old shoes strung around the U.S. presidential neck.

Almost all the 350 families in Hagradi village have more than one member working abroad, most of them in Kuwait, next door to Iraq.

Thus, the telephone stall in the sleepy Hagradi marketplace has been busy since the U.S.-led invasion began on March 20: anxious family members calling Kuwait or receiving calls from their breadwinners, sometimes every other day.

A cheaply painted calendar with full-blown images of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein brandishing machine guns dominates the tiny stall's decor. It shows Saddam in his many poses as the 'hero of the Muslim world'.

But Meherjan, who has one son in Dubai and the other in Kuwait, cares or knows little about the philosophical discourses on or justification of the war, as U.S. forces tighten their grip on the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

Neither Meherjan nor her two daughters-in-law understand English. Worry and fear blind Meherjan as she tries to follow the blasting images of war on her tiny television set.

"I had six sons," says the old woman, "and except for these two, others had early deaths. I am going crazy with worries for my younger son, who is in Kuwait. I keep watching battle scenes, fire blazing high, and worry if my son is in the middle of all these. I do not know who is fighting who."

Ninety percent of the yearly average of documented 200,000 migrant workers from mainly Muslim Bangladesh is placed in Middle Eastern countries.

The unofficial figure for total workers varies. In Iraq, say official sources, there are now only about 14 Bangladeshis including the embassy staff. At present, 1.1 million, the highest number of Bangladeshis working abroad, are in Saudi Arabia. In the United Arab Emirates, there are 325,000, and in Kuwait 162,000.

In other countries bordering Iraq, the numbers of Bangladeshis are much less: 500 in Turkey, 5,000 in Jordan, 14,000 (unofficially nearly 30,000) in Iran, and officially none in Syria. Worries here focus on Kuwait, presumably because of that country's history of hostility to Iraq.

Remittance from migrant workers in the Middle East comes to about one-fifth of Bangladesh's yearly import payments. Last year Bangladesh got $2.5 billion in remittances, 75 percent of it from workers in the Middle East.

Rows of neat, richly painted, corrugated tin houses in Hagradi speak of the difference these remittances have made in a poor farming community.

Life had been extremely difficult for Meherjan, a widow with three young children, until her sons grew up and went to work abroad. "My sons tell me over phone that if they come home without leave they will lose their jobs," says she. "But I am a mother and still urge them to come back."

Abdul Aziz, Meherjan's grandson, is a cook in a wealthy Kuwaiti household. He came home in February on two-month leave. Although his employer had warned him against overstaying his leave, he has been delaying going back, hoping that the war would end soon.

"My mother does not want me to go now," says Abdul Aziz. "But I've got to go back by the end of this month, war or no war. I'm worried if I have already lost my job."

Losing their jobs means a lot to these workers. Their per-head monthly average income abroad usually does not exceed $160, and a family can hardly save.

Nazar Ali came home on March 28, on a four-month leave. He went to Kuwait in 1995, borrowing about $1,700 at very high interest rates and earns $140 a month.

Ali's family of five depends entirely on the money he sends home. "If I did not have my leave due," says Ali, "I could not have left Kuwait." Although employers pay both-way plane fare for workers on leave, Ali's employer said he would reimburse the return fare once Ali goes back. A caution due to the war, Ali adds.

Dalil Uddin Mondal, chief executive of the government's Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment Ministry, however, says there is no cause for alarm yet.

"We have not heard of any harm to any of our citizens," says Mondal. From March 19 to April 8, says Mondal, 2,600 have returned from Kuwait, mostly on regular leave visits.

Some recent returnees are undocumented workers who have now been given a chance to leave Kuwait unpunished. "On the other hand, the first week of April saw 4,618 new emigrants, mostly to the Middle East, but not to Kuwait," Mondal adds.

The government has arranged with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to bring home at least 30,000 Bangladeshis should there be an emergency, says Mondal. The government is now registering the returnees at the airport and arranging free transportation home.

Anisur Rahman Khan, secretary general of the Welfare Association of Repatriated Bangladeshi Employees (WARBE), feels that so far not many workers have returned home due to war fears.

"If the war is a short one and does not spread outside Iraq, our people should be safe but the economic impacts could be far-reaching," says Khan. "The employers could cut down on wages and dismiss those overstaying their leaves for assessing the situation."

"I see no reason for panic at the moment," says economist Mustafizur Rahman. He says workers' remittances were over $700 million for January to March, or 19 percent more than the same period last year. "But if the war continues for long and involves Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, it will grossly affect our remittance scenario," Rahman adds.

Although the government and experts see no reason for panic, family members of migrant workers say they are worried just the same.

Nasima's husband is calling home regularly, unable to come back because he has no leave due. "My husband told me he won't have any regrets if he dies for Islam. He said he was ready to join the Iraqis in their resistance to the attackers," Nasima says.





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