DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh has begun evacuating thousands of stranded workers who were trafficked into war-ravaged Iraq by illegal manpower traders, officials said on Wednesday.
An Emirates Airlines flight carrying 42 Bangladeshis arrived in Dhaka on Thursday as part of the evacuation process under the initiative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The Bangladeshis were promised jobs in Dubai and other Middle Eastern countries but sent to Iraq instead, they said.
“My agent promised me a job in Dubai as a caterer,” said Mohammad Ashraful, 36. “But he seized my passport from a Dubai hotel and forced me to go to Iraq,” he told Reuters.
Ashraful paid 249,000 taka ($3,630) to his agent by selling family land and gold in his attempt to find a job but returned with nothing more than a plastic bag filled with his clothes.
Bangladesh has banned sending workers to Iraq since the 2003 war for security reasons, but thousands of job seekers were sent to the Gulf country by illegal recruiters.
The workers, many of whom said they had spent huge sums of money in their search for work, were put through several hours of interrogation by customs officials and detectives on their arrival at Dhaka airport.
Nearly 5 million Bangladeshis now work all over the world, mostly in the Middle East, and send home nearly $6 billion annually.
In recent months, Bangladeshi workers reported facing problems of abuse abroad, especially in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.
“We are providing airfare, pocket money and other assistance to the stranded Bangladeshis to return home from Iraq,” said IOM official Uttam Kumar Das in Dhaka.
Those evacuated on Wednesday estimated that about 10,000 more Bangladeshis were still in Iraq, facing a hard time without jobs and proper documents.
“The agents seized passports from Bangladeshi workers in and around Kurdistan in northern Iraq,” said another returnee, Abdul Aziz.
“I was dropped by my agent in an area (in Iraq) where local people themselves are fighting with poverty,” Aziz said.
As Bangladesh closed its embassy in Iraq in 2003, the undocumented Bangladeshi workers could not collect duplicate passports to return home.
“We are working closely with the Bangladesh government to ensure (their) safe migration,” Uttam said.
($1 = 68.58 taka)
Writing by Anis Ahmed; Editing by Valerie Lee