Dhaka upset at exodus of asylum seekers to Europe

Reports that number of political asylum seekers from Bangladesh has gone up have hugely upset Dhaka though analysts point out that more people from India too have given up citizenship to migrate

Bangladeshi immigrants break the Ramzan fast (Iftar) in Italy
Bangladeshi immigrants break the Ramzan fast (Iftar) in Italy

Ashis Biswas

Bangladeshis are paradoxically scrambling to emigrate to Western shores even as the country is doing remarkably well economically in South Asia. Bangladesh in fact claimed a per capita income of $2,227 as against India’s $1,947 in 2020-21 despite the pandemic.

Yet, thousands of Bangladeshis are denting their country’s increasingly glowing international image as they head for richer pastures, and not always legally.

Recent reports published by European immigration bodies indicate that around 19,000 illegal Bangladeshi migrants, stranded mostly in Greece along the Polish border, or in Italy, have sought political asylum in the West this year. Last year, their number was a little over 11,500 and in 2020, it was around 13,000.

The rising figures embarrass authorities in Dhaka. It also rankles them that while the migrant stream is headed West, there is also a growing number of successful Bangladeshi migrants opting for citizenship in Singapore or Malaysia.

Lately, Bangladesh has been embroiled in a running dispute with the United States/European Union countries over alleged human rights abuses targeting political dissenters by Dhaka. The ruling Awami League (AL) has also been accused of rigging elections held during its tenure.

Both allegations are vigorously disputed by AL leaders and the administration. However, the significant traffic of asylum seekers, according to observers, suggest that a sizeable section of Bangladeshi youth seemingly have no faith in their country’s future.

Dhaka-based analysts, not necessarily apologists for the ruling Awami League, point to a similar outward migration of citizens from India in recent years. (A recent ministerial answer in the Lok Sabha states that in 2020, as many as 85,000 Indians gave up their citizenship for a variety of reasons and the number rose to 1,60,000 in 2021. In 2019, the figure was 1,44,017. Most applied for fresh citizenship in the US, Canada or Australia). The outward migration in both countries is restricted to a very small fringe within the population and the primary reason for leaving home is the ambition to do better, they believe.

Forces inimical to Bangladesh, including pro-Pakistan elements and Islamic fundamentalists, have caused less harm to the aura of an emerging Bangladesh than these homegrown migrants, these analysts claim.

Dhaka-based officials insist that Bangladeshis seeking political asylum in the West are resorting to outright lying to secure a foothold abroad. Conversations between EU authorities and these migrants show most of them claiming that it was far too dangerous for them to live in Bangladesh because of political reasons.

Many, if not most, of these claims are exaggerated but feed into the builtin Western prejudice about Bangladesh as a country with a poor human rights record. “Since the lies come from native Bangladeshis, unfortunately, the damage caused is almost permanent,’’ says a Kolkata-based Bangladeshi research student.

While Bangladesh still has a long way to go in terms of economic development, in terms of law and order and general governance, it can scarcely be compared to Syria, Pakistan or Afghanistan, countries from which most asylum seekers to Europe come.

For asylum seekers, the chances for entry improve if one plays the ‘political victim’ card. Many applicants come from countries racked by prolonged violence and lawlessness, such as Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. Neither Bangladesh nor India was/has been ever listed along with these countries.

In Dhaka, home minister Asadus Zaman Khan points out that the bluff of the asylum seekers is easily called because law and order in Bangladesh has been stable over the years. EU authorities were however inclined to be more receptive and sympathetic to narratives of organised political persecution in different parts of Asia.

Lying does not always work though. Many people have been sent back. About five/six years ago, EU authorities had identified over 80,000 illegal Bangladeshi migrants in the continent and arranged for their return home.

Being the most densely populated country, which sees half of its territory go under water owing to monsoon floods and being vulnerable to periodic cyclones, Bangladesh was written off as a hopeless case by seasoned observers at its birth in 1971.

But while only 3% of the population were deemed to be above the poverty line in 1971, Bangladesh today has only around 22% of its people who are by definition poor. “But somehow, the image of Bangladesh as an emerging economy has not quite spread worldwide”, exclaims a Kolkata-based analyst.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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