Supporting Bangladeshi Migrants Returning From Libya

IOM staff assists Bangladeshi nationals who arrived home after fleeing the conflict in Libya. © IOM 2011
  Date: Friday, June 16, 2017
By Asif Munier, Migration Consultant, UNDP Bangladesh

Sometimes a promised land becomes a land of shattered dreams. The recent news of Bangladeshi migrants putting their lives at risk to cross the Mediterranean sea, and the report of IOM recently repatriating some Bangladeshis back from Libya, brings back memories of a similar crisis Bangladeshi migrants endured back in 2011, at the peak of the conflict in Libya.

The Libyan civil war had resulted in the displacement of thousands of foreign migrants, on an unprecedented scale. Between February and November 2011, nearly 800,000 migrants fled Libya to neighboring North African countries; some even crossed the Mediterranean Sea in the hope of reaching Greece or Italy.

Out of the total number of migrants who fled Libya during those 9 months, 45% were third-country nationals (TCNs). By the end of November 2011, IOM had arranged for the repatriation of 217,060 TCNs through ground, sea and eventually through chartered flights. Around 80% of returnees went back to other African countries.

However, outside of Africa, the largest return movement was towards Bangladesh, with IOM assisting 32,218 returnees. I was a direct witness and proud participant, along with other IOM colleagues, in providing support upon arrival to these 32,218 migrants, and resettlement support to overall 36,502 returnees.

The repatriation of Bangladeshi nationals began by chartered flight in February 2011. By the end of March, more than 30,000 migrant workers had been returned to Bangladesh. Most of them initially fled to Libya’s bordering countries. At the height of the movement, there were over 15,000 Bangladesh nationals at the Tunisian border with an additional 8,000 at the Egyptian border, anxiously waiting to be repatriated. At the peak of movement operations, on the receiving end, between 2,500 and 3,500 Bangladesh nationals were being assisted everyday on arrival at the international airport. IOM worked in cooperation with UNHCR, BDRCS (Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, the national Red Cross), NGOs like BRAC, and returnees’ associations like WARBE and BOMSA. IOM team was given special access to the tarmac, to the immigration and arrival lounges of the international airport, and was in charge of coordinating the airport assistance. The entire operation was fully supported by the officials of the civil aviation authority, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) and Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment (MoEW&OE).

All the returnees were provided the following assistance:

  • Reception at the gate of the aircraft
  • Escort through the tarmac and inside the terminal
  • Assistance with immigration clearance procedures
  • Provision of food and water
  • Availability of free phone calls and, when needed, immediate medical assistance
  • Registration of their basic information including contact numbers
  • Assistance with baggage claims, foreign currency exchange, and other services
  • Provision of onward transportation by bus

As soon as the returnees set their foot on the tarmac, we saw heart wrenching expressions of joy and relief. Some had a look of disbelief, others tears in their eyes while some even touched and kissed the tarmac. Others were bewildered as to what to expect, but soon felt reassured, as we guided them through the drill. Some had received assistance at the point of departure. While the feeling of relief settled in, the fear for an uncertain future arose. Most of them were already in large debt due to migration loans, had limited savings and had to face the social stigma of returning.

Government and migration agencies had no comprehensive prior record of the large number of Bangladeshi migrants in Libya, especially those in irregular status. Even after the return of over 36000 Bangladeshis, we knew there was still a large number of Bangladeshis in Libya.

The Government of Bangladesh set an example in terms of humanitarian response. About 64% of the funding contribution for the entire return and repatriation assistance from Libya in 2011 was provided jointly by the United States, the European Commission and Bangladesh, which offered its national carrier, not only for Bangladeshi citizens but also to repatriate nationals of other South Asian countries.

What happened to the migrants who returned in 2011?

In late 2011, IOM received a fast track emergency loan from the World Bank, to provide almost 37000 Libya returnees with a cash grant of 50,000 in local currency (around US$685 per capita). IOM Dhaka office supported the cash transfer with a basic administrative set up, including the design and implementation of a public information campaign, a call center to facilitate the registration and verification of the migrant workers and direct bank transfer of the grant.

As the media focal point, I responded to local and international media requests round the clock about updates on returnee’s flights and arrival, sometimes even in the middle of the night. Local reporters who went to the Tunisian border were put in touch with IOM media spokespersons on the ground. The fast paced reintegration assistance was also communicated and duly reported to the media.

During the return period, we provided information to migrants’ families, eager to know about the return of their loved ones. Later on, migrants themselves contacted some of us, seeking clarification on the cash grants process although information had already been disseminated through mobile text messages. Although the magnitude of our tasks and the constant level of interactions was at times overwhelming, there was a deep feeling of satisfaction in providing such a needed support to returnees and their families.

The lessons we learned during the 2011 return operations efforts became an invaluable asset when IOM Bangladesh had to support the return and repatriation of other Bangladeshi returnees caught in the Andaman Sea migrant crisis in 2015. By that time, our understanding of the needs of migrants caught in crises had increased, as well as IOM overall institutional knowledge and capacity in assisting and protecting migrants in crises. The Guidelines to protect Migrants in countries experiencing conflict or natural disasters were born of the need to provide a framework to better assist and protect migrants caught in crisis, while offering concrete and practical guidance to concerned stakeholders.

It has been and it will always be a very fulfilling experience both personally and professionally, to be able to rekindle the spirit of human solidarity while supporting migrants affected by a crisis.

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Author Asif Munier is a former NPO and media focal point with IOM Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, Mr. Munier is currently a migration consultant with UNDP Bangladesh, and a freelance consultant on displacement and development communication as well.