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Where are Europe’s illegal migrants coming from? Surprise: It’s Bangladesh.

- May 19, 2017
A rescuer with the Malta-based NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station carries a migrant baby rescued from a wooden boat in the central Mediterranean Sea off the coast of  Libya on April 15. (Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

What country are most of Europe’s illegal migrants coming from? You might think Syria or some other war-torn nation. You would be wrong. According to the International Organization for Migration, the top “sending” country is a democracy that claims to have made strides in human development: Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi migrants are paying between $8,000 and $9,000 just to get to Libya, and an additional $700 for an uncertain passage across the Mediterranean to Italy.

The vast majority are looking for work — and migrant work has always been risky. Thousands of Bangladeshi workers have died  working in Middle Eastern countries. More than 8,000 bodies were returned to Bangladesh from 2004 to 2009, out of roughly 3.7 million Bangladeshi workers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain  and Oman in 2009. Employers often subject workers to inhumane working conditions and hold them hostage by confiscating their passports.

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These migrant workers are trapped in foreign countries, unable to return home.

If it’s dangerous, why do so many Bangladeshis migrate?

For many Bangladeshis, migration is one of the few paths to upward mobility. Although the country has reduced poverty from 44.2 percent in 1991 to 18.5 percent in 2010, that’s still a lot of people. What’s more, the nation faces massive structural challenges: a large population of 164.8 million, of which roughly 34 percent live  in urban centers; floodwaters, rising sea levels  and encroaching salt water pushing people out of coastal areas and into densely populated cities; and a high graduate unemployment rate.

With the job market saturated, many young men and women seek employment abroad. Fully 5.5 percent of Bangladesh’s population is international migrant workers. Four out of their top five destinations are in the Middle East — Oman, Qatar, UAE  and Bahrain. Harsh working conditions have now pushed their movement to Europe, and in particular, Italy. In Rome, Bangladeshis run mini-marts and work as street vendors, and have established themselves in local communities. They even run their own community organizations.

According to the World Bank, those migrants send home billions of U.S. dollars, a large boost to the country’s economic development at home.

Bangladesh: Personal remittances in millions of U.S. dollars (1976-2014)
Source: World Development Indicators

Bangladesh has a long history of migration. After independence in 1971, rising domestic unemployment and the gulf’s need for oil field workers prompted mass migration to Middle Eastern countries. Working in Saudi Arabia or Dubai became many a young person’s dream. These stints — often on temporary contracts — created a path to higher economic and social status. Because families of migrants tended to be wealthier, migrant work was seen as a marker of success.

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Migrant recruitment — particularly of poor and unskilled workers — grew into a massive industry riddled with illegal and violent practices. Recruiters form a vast network within and between the sending and receiving countries and charge high fees for their services. The cost of going to work in the Middle East is 4.5 times higher in Bangladesh than in the Philippines or Sri Lanka, and in Bangladesh, almost 60 percent of the money goes to intermediaries, 18 percent to helpers, and an additional  10 percent to recruitment agencies.

The Middle East is becoming a less attractive destination

Saudi Arabia is no longer taking Bangladeshi workers in great numbers. Although the country lifted a six-year ban on Bangladeshi workers in 2016, this is unlikely to increase recruitment because falling oil prices have left tens of thousands of workers — mainly Indians — unemployed and starving there. Others are returning from conflict-ridden Middle Eastern countries. More than 36,000 workers returned from Libya alone since the uprising against Moammar Gaddafi began in 2011. A variety of human rights organizations have called attention to worker exploitation and abuse.

And so, since the fall of  Gaddafi, Libya has become the gateway to Europe for many countries’ refugees and migrants willing to risk the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean — including 2,800 Bangladeshis who arrived in Italy this year.

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Illegal migration to Europe is not new for Bangladeshis. In 2015, the Libyan government banned the entry of Bangladeshi workers, claiming that many were trying to travel to Europe. Others who had traveled to Europe illegally were sent back to Bangladesh. But Libya’s fragile political situation may have opened up new trafficking opportunities across the Mediterranean. More and more Bangladeshis are now attempting this passage.

The Bangladeshi job market remains dire

At home, political and economic crises are motivating young people to migrate. Bangladesh has one of the highest unemployment rates in South Asia, despite steady economic growth, unemployment likely fueled by high inflation and increasing population. A World Bank report estimated that in 2013, about 41 percent of Bangladeshi youths were not employed or in education or training, and the portion of young unemployed people was 78 percent.

Skilled workers can only get government jobs if they have a patron; private companies often hire only students from elite universities. And higher education itself can be corrupt, with students often unable to get into schools and universities without bribes or political connections.

Unskilled workers tend to work on temporary contracts in agriculture, transportation or construction in the cities. Most come from the villages. While nongovernmental organizations have entered the rural scenes with scores of development programs targeting women, they leave the men behind. Political violence, lawlessness  and crackdowns on the opposition make life all the more uncertain.

What’s more, Bangladesh’s once-booming ready-made garment industry — which has contributed significantly to economic growth and employment — has seen retailers pulling out because of dangerous working conditions and political violence. In 2013, 1,137 people died when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed. Bangladesh’s factories have yet to comply with the renovations that global retailers demanded after that. Recently, five big clothing brands have pulled out of a major garment industry summit after hundreds of workers were dismissed over demands for better pay. With the garment industry suffering, thousands of workers are looking for other jobs.

And so thousands are trying to get to Europe

More than 1,000 migrants have died this year in the passage from Libya to Italy. They are not only trying to escape conflict and persecution but also risking their lives and savings to flee poverty and economic desperation. Whether European countries will welcome them remains to be seen.

Nayma Qayum is an assistant professor in Asian studies at Manhattanville College. Find her on twitter @naymaqayum.