The economic importance of the more than 10 million migrants from Bangladesh who sent close to $18 billion in 2019 cannot be overstated. International remittances normally represent around 7% of Bangladesh’s GDP. But the COVID-19 pandemic is having an acute effect on Bangladeshi migrants abroad, who are largely concentrated in countries with strict lockdown measures. Considering the large volume of Bangladeshi migrants in the Middle East, secondary economic impacts through depressed demand and falling oil prices will also likely add strain to the flow of remittances.
World Bank estimates have projected that total remittances by migrant workers from Bangladesh will fall to $14 billion for 2020 – around a 25% decrease from the previous year. Figures released by Bangladesh Bank show that year-on-year remittances for the month fell by 25%, indicating that the World Bank’s projection is, unfortunately, likely to hold true. The drop in these payments, which have traditionally averaged between $300 and $600 a month, will represent a significant loss to millions of household incomes in Bangladesh.
Crisis exposes need for better migration cooperation
The need to halt the falling flow of remittances in the country must start with a conversation about migration.
Mostly working in the tourism, hospitality and construction sectors, many migrants to the Gulf have been laid off and face limited prospects for employment. With coronavirus outbreaks emerging in the Gulf states, and more recently in Singapore, it has been reported that the pandemic has been experienced mostly among these migrant workers – living in crowded, dormitory-style labour camps, they are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
The response to the crisis among a number of countries, including Bahrain, Kuwait, the Maldives, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has been to compel or to put pressure on countries like Bangladesh to repatriate their migrant workers. Bangladesh has been hesitant to bend to these demands amid the public health risks. And when travel restrictions are lifted, the return of newly unemployed migrants could overwhelm the country’s economy.
It has therefore become imperative that Bangladesh mobilizes its diplomatic corps to ensure that there is greater migration cooperation, not only during the current lockdown phase but also during the COVID-19 recovery phase. Shahidul Haque, Bangladesh’s former foreign secretary, urged that strategies to defeat the coronavirus must emphasize “inclusiveness, courage and collaboration, without distinction or discrimination” – or they will “not succeed”. Mr Haque added: “A holistic, nuanced approach that acknowledges migrants’ economic contributions is optimal.”
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