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In Pursuit of the Golden Deer

Naomi Ahmad's picture

This is a true story…

It is the year 2005. 26 young Bangladeshi men are crammed on a small rubber boat. Floating on the vast Mediterranean Sea. The boat's engine had stalled days ago.

10 days without food or water. The men are faced with a choice – death from drinking sea water or the inhuman alternative of having to drink one’s own urine. The pain of watching a brother or a dear friend slowly and painfully starve to death is too much. One by one the men start looking at each other - wondering which part of a dead body would be edible. Another weakly searches for something sharp enough to cut out a chunk of his own flesh, before collapsing dead from hunger and fatigue…

This is what a group of young Bangladeshis faced in 2005, when they embarked on an illegal journey to Spain. Only three survived the ordeal and lived to speak of the horrors of those 10 days.

These young men had started their journey with hopes of finding employment in Spain. Instead, duped by their recruiting agency, they had to cross the Sahara Desert with hardly enough to eat or drink – constantly afraid of being shot at by the border guards and dragged off to the horrors of a jail in an unknown country. Returning home was not an option – many had sold all their land and taken heavy loans to pay the recruiting agency – they couldn’t bear the thought of returning with nothing to show but failure. After barely surviving their ordeal through the desert, in a last desperate attempt to reach Spain, the group tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea in a small rubber boat. The Algerian authorities rescued the three survivors after ten long days.

The tragic story of these 26 Bangladeshi men serves as the backdrop of the documentary – Deshantori (The Migrant). A film by Mridul Chowdhury and Shujon Mahmud, Deshantori explores how migration is becoming a desperate and sometimes reckless effort by hundreds of young people in Bangladesh. I attended one of the earliest screenings of the film at the MBA Club in Dhaka a few years ago and true to what I had heard about the film – it made me laugh; it made me cry and it froze my heart when reconstructed scenes from the small rubber boat were shown.

The film made me think about the unfortunate phenomena of illegal migration. Most illegal migrants are deceived by recruiting agents into believing they are going abroad to work legally, but in reality no job awaits them. Others enter a country legally but become illegal if they lose or change their jobs.

And then there are those fueled by a desire to take up whatever means they can find to leave the country and go elsewhere.

It makes me wonder - what makes people from my country take on such risky ventures for uncertain employment in a distant foreign land? What kind of grim determination seizes them when they sell off all their land and borrow money to engage a dalal (middleman) who’ll get them their shady foreign work permits and visas?

And what goads them on in this blind pursuit of the golden deer - which often turns out to be a trap, eventually claiming all their possessions and sometimes even their lives? A lot of questions – the answers of which I feel are more complex, more psychologically rooted, than a mere explanation of the push-pull factors of migration.

Today newspaper headlines serves to remind us of the plight of our migrant workers who had fallen prey to migration frauds and are now stranded and unprotected in distant lands. Even as I write this, I notice the headlines - 44 workers stranded in Sharjah for 5 months (The Daily Star, dt. August 30, 2010). And as long as there is a demand from within the people for their services, fraudulent recruiting agencies promising quick and “hassle-free” foreign employment and visa will continue to prey on people. This brings to my mind, the last half hour of the Deshantori screening I attended.

After the screening, the three survivors met with the audience to share their thoughts about their traumatic experience. Amid sympathetic comments from the audience and an occasional curious question, a voice from the back suddenly asked out – “After all this, will you attempt to migrate again?”

A hush descended on the entire room; people held their breath nervously. To my surprise, after a pause, one of survivors spoke up. Calmly he explained how after his return from the harrowing experience on the Mediterranean Sea, he had spoken to an emigration agent. He was now convinced that a wonderful life awaited him in Italy.

I have decided that I will go. One way or another, I shall find a way to go there”, he continued and the cold determination in his voice was scary.

Deshantori Trailer


Naomi, I think that this is not really the right question to be focusing on: "And what goads them on in this blind pursuit of the golden deer - which often turns out to be a trap, eventually claiming all their possessions and sometimes even their lives? A lot of questions – the answers of which I feel are more complex, more psychologically rooted, than a mere explanation of the push-pull factors of migration." Rather, I'd focus on how we can close the loop, and inform potential migrants of the actual situations that they face when migrating, contextualized through reliable reputations of everyone along the labor chain, from the recruiter to the final employer. I know it sounds daunting. This is why I've started an entire social enterprise to address it (LaborVoices, Inc.). I'd be happy to chat with you about how we can adapt the LaborVoices model to fit Bangladesh; we're currently piloting and planning for expansion in India. In solidarity, Kohl

Hi Kohl The concept behind LaborVoices is really interesting - using cell phone technology to link up to a voice-mail forum to help potential migrants communicate with migrant workers and receive information about employment situations. In Bangladesh, I know of programs under the BRAC's Advocacy and Human Rights Unit (BAHRU) and the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) that aim to raise awareness about illegal migration through irregular channels. I'm sure there are efforts from other quarters but there still remains much to be done to help prevent people from becoming victims of this. Wishing you all the very best with LaborVoices, Naomi

Submitted by Nazia Khan on
Hi Naomi One question comes to my mind – if people are really driven by their wish for a better life, a wish that leads them to take such huge risks of going abroad, then why don’t they just give the same effort and work hard in their own country for a better life? I know of some people who quit their jobs in Dhaka and went back to their village home for Eid this year. They will stay there, take rest for 3-4 months and return back to the city to work when all their savings are gone. This is why these families can never save enough to escape out of their poverty. The very same person is willing to work hard for 50-60 hours a week once he gets a chance to go abroad for employment. Why is this so? Is it the failure of our country to motivate its people or is it our own inertia and we just blame it on our situation? Thanks for raising issues that that gave us "food for thought".

Thanks! I feel that some people's staunch belief in foreign countries as the source of all bounty, make them prioritise migration above everything else. And prompts them to risk everything in attempts to gain access to remittances. One way or another they keep on trying, believing it is the only way they can achieve economic security...

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