DHAKA – The crowds wait outside the arrivals terminal at Shahjalal International airport as dozens of taxi drivers line the streets looking for business.
Armies of beggars plead for attention from passersby, while passengers leave the arrivals hall carrying flat-screen TVs or oversized boxes wrapped in cling-film.
A group of women appear amid the constant stream of people. Dressed in an array of colours, they pull their suitcases, looking for their loved ones.Khaleda Akhter, a domestic worker who fled Saudi Arabia, arrives back in Dhaka, Bangladesh in February (MEE/Kaamil Ahmed)
Khaleda Akhter, 28, has just spent months inside a Bangladeshi-run safe house in Saudi Arabia, and is desperate to see her two children. Holding a copy of the Quran to her chest, she scans the arrivals hall for the exit, then begins to walk towards the double doors. Initially, her steps are slow and steady, as she takes in what has changed since she left Bangladesh a year ago.
Akhter figures out where to head, clutches her black abaya to avoid it dragging on the ground and begins zipping through the traffic to the train station. From there, she will embark on the next leg of her journey back home to Rajshahi, 250 km away near the border with India.
But underneath her clothing lies a reminder of why Akhter left Saudi Arabia. Unravelling the bandages on her arms, she shows the marks that symbolise the price she paid for wanting a better life.
“They tried to burn me,” Akhter says, wiping away a tear. “Not once, but twice. If I knew this would happen, I would never have gone.”
‘I had to give it a shot’
Like hundreds of Bengalis who went to work as domestic workers in the Gulf kingdom, Akhter fled her employers after months of abuse.
She represents one of the thousands of women from the country who each year make the journey to the kingdom in the hope of a better life.
In 2018, at least 1,000 Bengali maids returned to Bangladesh to escape physical and sexual abuse in Saudi, according to local NGO BRAC. Most escaped to one of the safe houses run by the Bangladeshi embassy in Riyadh and Jeddah.
Many have been not been paid by their employers and had their passports taken away by recruitment agents, who first sold them the dream of working in the Gulf state.
Akhter sits in the restaurant adjacent to the train station, holding the hand of Aisha Begum, a fellow domestic worker, who ran away from an employer who did not pay her for four months and repeatedly beat her.
The restaurant is packed. Plates of rice and curry are ferried between the kitchen and tables. Waiters hand out cups of chai.
When Begum, 45, speaks to Akhter, she does so with confidence, looking her companion in the eye: the women are looking forward to their first shinghara, a fried potato snack popular on the Indian subcontinent. Begum pulls back her green hijab, her gold earrings visible beneath her headscarf and tries hard to attract the attention of the waiters.
“I’ve waited nearly a year for this,” she says, as she eventually sips her first cup of chai since arriving home.
Akhter and Begum met in the safe house in Jeddah in late 2017, where Akhter stayed for three months and Begum for two.
Begum recalls how her ordeal at the hands of an abusive employer lasted for three months, never knowing when she would next be hit. “My god, that tension was too much,” she says and begins to cry.
“I only went to Saudi Arabia to make a better life for myself and family. What work is there in Bangladesh? Everyone is leaving at the first opportunity they get. I had to give it a shot.”
The brokers who sell the dream
Begum and Akhter left Bangladesh with the help of one of the thousands of brokers – known as a dalaal – who are based across Bangladesh, from the largest cities to the smallest villages, arranging passports and visas and guaranteeing employment in Saudi homes. The brokers in turn work for the recruitment agencies who are mostly based in Dhaka.
The majority of the maids working in Saudi come from villages like Akhter’s, where poverty is rife and it’s easy for brokers to sell them dreams: the promise of earning hundreds of dollars, the chance to visit Mecca and Medina, and a safe workplace where they will not face abuse.
It’s easy for brokers to sell dreams in poor villages: the promise of earning hundreds of dollars, the chance to visit Mecca and Medina, a safe workplace
Despite not having enough money, many women take the risk and pay up, perceiving the extortionate recruitment fees as an investment. Some even sell land or take out loans from family to raise the money to leave.
“The image of going overseas represents not only wealth but a status-symbol within Bengali culture,” says Ali Ahmed from the Human Development Research Centre, a migrant rights NGO based in Dhaka. “Brokers go into rural communities where they directly recruit the women on behalf of the agencies.
“The key expense should be the passport, but they [the brokers] add a premium to their services to get a visa and other documents.”
For each woman they recruit, the brokers charge between 30,000 to 60,000 takas ($360-$720): of that, the cut for the brokers comes to $120. Bangladesh is one of the poorest nations in the world, with a GDP per capita in 2017 of $1538: in outlying rural areas, it is a lot less.
When migrants began leaving Bangladesh during the 1970s, there were two ways: directly through the Bangladeshi ministry of manpower; or through recruitment agents. Most Bengalis use the latter to avoid the corruption endemic in Bangladesh bureaucracy.
In 2017, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranked Bangladesh as 143rd out of 180 with a score of 28/100.
Ahmed believes that many Bangladeshis trust brokers for work overseas because they are “known to the families” and “easy to reach if there is any trouble”.
Categories: Saudi Arabia