09 October 2020
Full Report: Bangladesh
- Cooperation on return of expat workers shows Riyadh will not use community to pressure Dhaka to issue passports to Saudi Rohingya in coming months
- Dhaka will remain highly unlikely to issue passports, particularly as it will want to discourage similar calls from Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh
- Dhaka will seek to broaden sources of remittances, especially given Gulf countries’ ongoing efforts to reduce reliance on migrant workers
Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen announced on 30 September that from 1 October, airlines would operate 20 flights per week between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia to allow migrant workers to return to the Kingdom before their work permits expire. This came three days after he requested increased flights in a conversation with his counterpart in Saudi Arabia – which agreed on 15 September to partially lift its suspension of international flights to allow “exceptional categories” of residents and citizens to travel. Momen also said on 7 October that Riyadh had extended the validity of Bangladeshi expatriate workers’ visas and residence permits until 30 October.
Source – Central Bank of Bangladesh, Remittance Inflows FY2019-20
Saudi Arabia is the largest employer of Bangladeshi workers in the Middle East, with around 2.2 million migrant workers from Bangladesh living there. When it suspended international flights in March to limit the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), an estimated 137,000 citizens who usually live and work in Saudi Arabia were stranded in Bangladesh. Recent weeks have therefore seen hundreds protesting outside the Saudi embassy and Bangladesh’s foreign ministry, as well as the offices of Saudia and Biman Bangladesh airlines in Dhaka, to demand tickets that would enable them to return before their permits expire. This explains Momen’s request to the Saudi foreign minister, and the subsequent agreements to extend permits and increase the number of available flights.
Momen will have been keen not only to end the protests but also to hasten the resumption of remittance payments, which are a vital source of revenue. In FY 2019-20, expat workers sent home more than USD 18 billion, of which almost 20% came from Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Riyadh is aware of the importance of this revenue stream, and has reportedly sought to leverage it in recent weeks to pressure Dhaka to offer passports to some of the 54,000 Rohingya who are currently stateless and living in Saudi Arabia. Many were registered as Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani or Nepalese when they entered Saudi Arabia – despite having no links to these countries – and Momen claimed on 23 September that “some people at a junior level” had urged Dhaka to issue passports to avoid Riyadh taking a “negative approach” to Bangladeshi expats. He responded, however, that Dhaka would only consider offering Bangladeshi passports to individuals who could prove they had been issued one in the past.
Momen’s statements, and Riyadh’s efforts to facilitate expat workers’ return, reflect that Riyadh is not currently exerting substantial pressure on Dhaka to grant passports to Rohingya in Saudi Arabia. It will therefore refuse to do so for now, particularly as it will fear that issuing passports to Saudi Rohingya could encourage Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh – around 850,000 according to recent government estimates – to demand the same. Meanwhile, the government will step up its efforts to increase remittances generated outside the Middle East. Indeed, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked Momen on 28 September to explore new employment destinations, such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and the government is already in the process of recruiting for agricultural work in Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and The Gambia. It will likely consider such diversification to be particularly important as Gulf countries increase their focus on nationalisation policies intended to reduce their reliance on migrant workers in coming years.