I arrived in Bangladesh a couple of hours ago for a reporting excursion with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS Tuberculosis and Malaria. Our site visits begin tomorrow. In the meantime, one thing that has struck me as I keep abreast of news in from the Middle East is how the Bangladeshi experience of what is happening in Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain is particularly unique.
The Dhaka edition of English language daily The Daily Star uses the term “manpower exporter” to describe Bangladesh’s relationship with Arab countries. And based on my flight from Doha to Dhaka, I could see why. The jam-packed Airbus included at most 5 female passengers. Pretty much everyone else was a Bangladeshi man between the ages of 25 and 45. (I don’t know the precise number of Bangladeshi migrant workers in the middle east or north Africa, but it is probably somewhere in the six figures.) Accordingly, the coverage in the paper has something of a personal feel to it.
The lead item discusses how the International Organization for Migration and the UN Refugee Agency are struggling to come up with the funds to help repatriate migrant workers, including several thousand Bangladeshi’s, who fled from Libya to Tunisia and are now living in a makeshift refugee camp.
Then, off the front page, there is a short item about the plight of Bangladeshi migrants caught up in the upheavals in Bahrain. One Bangladeshi was killed and several beaten — apparently by reform protesters — and the Bangladeshi envoy there has asked the Bahraini government to give a laisse passe to undocumented Bangladeshi migrants seeking to leave.
Finally, there is an A-1 above the fold editorial titled “Thank You Tunisia,” which describes all the ways in which Tunisians have been gracious hosts to Bangladeshi’s fleeing Libya.
Tunisia, recovering from a stunning popular uprising in December, 2010, that ousted the 23-year-old corrupt regime of president Zin el Abedin Ben Ali on January 14, 2011, had never experienced anything like this in its history. When thousands walked into its soil to flee Gaddafi’s atrocities, the hard working and hospitable Tunisians were busy picking up from the scratches of the “revolution” that claimed the lives of nearly 250 people.
The news of thousands of workers arriving on their soil spread throughout the Tunisian territory of 165 square kilometres and to its 12 million people.
The spirit of the just-ended revolution rose again among the people. This time for the welfare of others who are in need of food and shelter. Before the international aid workers reached the crisis area, about 60,000 displaced people were there in Ras Jdir under the open sky.
From every corner of Tunisia, men and women rose to the need of the moment. They raised money, food, clothes, tents, water and rushed there to help. Thousands of families in the two adjacent districts, Medenine and Tataouine, cooked food at home and drove their own transports over a 100 kilometres to the border to feed the Bangladeshis, Egyptians, Chinese, Somalis and others. In Zirzas, under Medenine district, 100 kilometres away from Ras Jdir border, people opened up schools, youth centres and doors of their own homes to the fleeing thousands.
Firas Kayal, the UNHCR spokesperson at Choucha camp, said during the eight years that he has been working with UNHCR at different places, he has never seen such generosity from the locals.
“In the beginning of the crisis had the Tunisian people not come forward to help, there would have been a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Kayal.
A Tunisian telecommunication company called Etisalat along with a French company Telecoms Sans Frontieres opened up booths for the displaced people at the Choucha camp so that they can call toll-free to their countries.
“You have to thank the Tunisian government first that allowed in these thousands of people many of whom without any travel documents,” Kayal said, “The Tunisian army has been doing the magic job of maintaining law and order in the camp as well,” Kayal added.