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An Innovative Approach to Promoting Safe Migration: Three Lessons Learned from Bangladesh

Aneeka Rahman's picture
Courtyard sessions being conducted by community-based organizations. Munjir Ahmed/World Bank
The migration story in Bangladesh has two sides: on the one side, it is a story of hope and transformation. Over half a million people in Bangladesh go abroad to work every year to pursue better lives for themselves and their families. The rising number of migrant workers no longer constitute young men working in the construction sector in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Female migrants have also joined the surging workforce, mostly seeking domestic work. The money that migrants send home to their families enable them to have access to better housing, nutrition, education, and healthcare, while cushioning against adverse impacts of shocks. In effect, Bangladesh’s large gains in poverty reduction has these migrant workers to thank.  
 
On the flip side, there are stories of exploitation and failed migration. Often manipulated by unscrupulous middle men, Bangladesh’s large youth population’s high aspiration, and sometimes desperation, lead them to take undue risks, ending in tragic note. Workers often face grave difficulties at home and abroad, in spite of the positive outcomes that can result from migration. The horrors of many migrant workers’ experiences catching global headlines reveal their desperation for better livelihoods, along with low levels of education, can make them vulnerable to extortion and fraud. Government services and private recruiting agencies are largely centred in large cities, whereas most migrants come from rural areas. As a result, they routinely face constraints in accessing information and services and a very high cost of migration.  Bangladeshis face some of the highest migration costs in the world, ranging between USD 1,675 to 5,145.
 
What if an alternate set of intermediaries could be utilized to fill the information void? Could this lead to better migration practices and fewer failed attempts? To test this hypothesis, the World Bank partnered with BRAC to pilot the Safe Migration for Bangladeshi Workers project, with resources from the Japan Social Development Fund, with the objective of improving access to reliable information at the community level. Three key lessons have emerged after the project’s four-year implementation.
 
Community Organizations have an important role to play for quick and effective scale up 
The project was implemented in 80 Upazilas (sub-districts) with a high rate of migration. BRAC worked with local community-based organizations to develop and strengthen a local information and support system for migrants and their families. Enlisting returnee migrants and volunteers to help minimize costs, awareness and orientation on safe migration processes was communicated on a regular basis through courtyard meetings, popular theatre and other forms of media. 
 
By the close of the project in June 2017, over one million households were reached through various communication campaigns. Up to 60% of households that were surveyed knew what documents were required as part of the migration process and almost 30,000 migrants benefited from facilitation services.
 
The project demonstrated that non-government and community organizations can partner with governments to fill gaps in the chain of service delivery through their extensive network and outreach. They can be a crucial link to accessing reliable information and services and reduce the vulnerability of migrants.
 
The insufficiency of current services demonstrates a need for intervention through social enterprises The project provided additional services for aspirant migrants, including pre-decision counseling; referral and scholarships for skills acquisition; facilitating documentation, and finally pre-departure orientation. This required close coordination with government institutions, including local District and Employment Manpower Officers and Technical Training Centres. A notable partnership was developed under the recruitment drive for female domestic workers to Saudi Arabia where BRAC was requested to provide life and health skills training to the women, when local centres were unable to meet the overwhelming demand.
 
The project’s role went well beyond supporting aspiring migrants only. It assisted households in securing scholarships for their children’s education, besides taking measures to provide information and facilitation services on government welfare schemes, and in some unfortunate cases, repatriation and burial costs of a deceased family member. 
 
What was made clear through this process is that there is a big void for aspirant migrant workers getting quality and affordable services, starting from skills acquisition to job matching to financing -- an opportunity for social enterprises to offer innovative solutions in reaching their clients with the right product.
 
Beyond information, dots need to be connected on jobs and skills development  
More concerted effort is required to address the challenges of safe migration, particularly in the areas of linking workers to the right jobs and ensuring their welfare when abroad. This project highlighted the unmet demand for even the most basic of services – information provision – and demonstrated that strengthening existing networks at the grassroots level can go a long way in helping families strive towards a better future. Taking lessons from this initiative, BRAC has now launched migration support enterprises in three migration prone districts where a full 360-degree service - starting from information, language training, skilling and job placement services - is being provided for a fee. The goal is to reduce the cost and increase the quality of migration.   
 
Migration is a very important tool for people to lift their families out of the curse of poverty but this sector remains filled with groups waiting to exploit desperate potential migrant workers. Only through sustained, comprehensive efforts in improving this experience, Bangladesh can make the most out of this opportunity.