With Vietnam returnee Rubel languishing in jail, his wife and three children are struggling to make ends meet as he is the sole wage-earner of his family.
But what worries Shirina Akhter the most is the continuous pressure from the lenders to repay the loans that her husband had taken for a dream job abroad.
“Only Allah knows how hard my days are. I am now going from door to door to feed my kids. I buy groceries on credit even,” said Shirina, of Ghagra village in Mymensingh’s Gafargaon.
Her youngest child, four-year-old Tamanna, continues to ask about her father. “How can I say that her father is in jail. I keep saying he will soon bring you chocolates,” said the 35-year-old in a cracked voice.
Rubel is one of the 81 migrant workers sent to jail on September 1 upon their return from Vietnam where they had migrated late last year and early this year with the clearances of the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET).
Agents charged them Tk 4-5 lakh each on promises of regular jobs with a monthly salary of $500-600 plus overtime and other benefits.
However, after their arrival in Vietnam, their passports were confiscated, they were not arranged work permits and were employed in temporary jobs and paid low wages. Many remained jobless, and complaints to the Vietnam authorities were in vain.
Finally, they were repatriated on August 18. After their 14-day quarantine, Turag police produced them before a metropolitan magistrate, showing them arrested under Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). The court sent them to jail.
Police said the returnees were sentenced abroad for their involvement in criminal activities that have tarnished the country’s image and affected overseas job market. Besides, during the quarantine period, they were planning subversive activities against the government. If released, they can engage in various crimes.
Officials and returnees rejected the claim that the 81 were jailed in Vietnam.
Apart from them, between July 4 and September 1, 293 other migrants returning from the Middle East were also sent to prison. They had been in jail in the Middle East countries and their sentences were forgiven.
Police cited the similar reasons for showing them arrested.
Supreme Court lawyer Syed Sayedul Haque Suman said as per the law and the SC directive, a person can be arrested under the Section 54 only if there is any specific allegation, but there is nothing specific about the migrant workers.
The law enforcers have identified several recruiting agencies and manpower brokers, but they are yet to come under law.
The expatriates’ welfare ministry’s investigation into how the BMET issued clearance for those going to Vietnam without verification is still going on. It seems lenient with the perpetrators. Minister Imran Ahmad said he does not want to be so harsh on the agents as it is a pandemic time.
Migrant rights activists and families of the returnees wonder why the government is so harsh on the migrants and their families.
Shirina said her husband Rubel, who was a sharecropper, had a few maunds of paddy before he left for Vietnam in December. That was the food stock they relied on for several months. Her husband sold land and borrowed Tk 3 lakh to go to Vietnam, but he could send only about Tk 20,000. The lenders are repeatedly asking her to repay the loans — in instalments or just give them the interest against loans.
“Where do I get money? The loan amount, including interest, has already gone up,” Shirina said. She also requested village broker Asad to give her some money, but was not only rejected but also threatened that Rubel could not walk out of jail if she demanded money.
Selina (not her real name), 25, wife of another returnee Sohel from Bahrain, said Sohel went to Bahrain in mid-June last year, two weeks after their marriage. A business graduate from a private university used to work at a money exchange house in Manama, but was jailed for a Tik Tok video during Eid-ul-Fitr this year.
“He was forgiven after serving one month in jail. He might not have known that making a Tik Tok video could end him up in prison. He has no criminal records … why is he jailed in Bangladesh?” she said.
When the pandemic began, his salary was slashed and had no savings to send money home, said Selina of Narayanganj. It was sad that he had to stay in jail and return empty-handed.
Sohel’s parents are above 70 and both are suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure. Their health situation has worsened amid this pandemic and for the continuous tension about Sohel, she said.
“How is it possible that one is punished so harshly for no reason? Don’t we have the right to get justice in our own country?” Selina questioned.