Why immigrants seek asylum in Europe from Keir Starmer’s “safe” Bangladesh

Growing number of asylum seekers from Bangladesh in Europe is closely linked to the absence of democracy.

Why immigrants seek asylum in Europe from Keir Starmer’s “safe” Bangladesh

As Keir Starmer is widely tipped to score goals on a field against some weak opponents in a general election in the United Kingdom, he slipped and scored an own goal on the campaign trail. Only a week before the vote, Britain’s Labour Party leader enraged a traditionally pro-Labour vote bank with a comment that he later admitted as “clumsy”.

“At the moment, people coming from countries like Bangladesh are not being removed because they’re not being processed,” said the UK Labour leader, indicating the recent deal signed between the two countries on repatriating failed Bangladeshi asylum seekers.

This apparently innocuous comment of the Labour top leader resulted in protests from the British-Bangladeshi leaders, and at least one Labour-backed councillor has resigned in protest for singling out Bangladeshis, which was disrespectful to the community as a whole.

The harsh reaction has prompted Keir Starmer to offer a clarification, where he emphasised that the statement was not meant to hurt the Bangladeshi community as a whole but to address illegal immigrants seeking asylum coming from a country that he considers a “safe” one.

It is hard to understand why he believes Bangladesh is a “safe” country when at least three journalists living in the UK have faced transnational repression in recent years. Even if we accept that he is partially right, we need to pay more attention to why this “safe country” is the source of the fifth-highest asylum seekers in the UK and one of the highest in other European countries as well.

Political persecution is clearly a valid reason for many to leave Bangladesh. The British public broadcaster BBC published several stories on the harassment and custodial deaths of opposition men and journalists in Bangladesh. UK’s foreign affairs wing Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) own assessment of Bangladesh’s human rights situation also confirms all the allegations.

Political harassment is no longer limited to opposition activists and often extends to people with apparently no political links. Arrest trade, where police arrest common people in politically motivated cases to extract “protection money”, has become a rampant practice, forcing many such accused to do a cost-benefit analysis on whether leaving Bangladesh would be a more viable option than paying police for protection forever.

However, there is no doubt that not all asylum seekers have valid reasons — some of them are economic migrants coming up with made-up cases aimed at exploiting the opportunity to settle in the UK. And that takes us to a problem that is equally pressing.

Though Bangladesh achieved sustained economic growth over the decades, the country failed to generate enough jobs for the 2.1 million youth joining the workforce each year. 41% of Bangladeshi youth are neither receiving any education and training nor employment. The lack of jobs is forcing the youth to look for opportunities abroad.

Despite sending thousands of migrants abroad each year, Bangladesh receives less remittance because it has failed to develop a skilled workforce, and most of the labour force ends up in low-skill jobs. Besides, the high level of corruption often involving top bureaucrats’ relatives in distributing skills certificates to unskilled workers adds more woes to the crisis.

Two World Bank officials, based on their analysis of Bangladesh’s assessment of different levels of education, have found that the quality of education has not improved over the years and has, in some cases, declined, though the country boasts a high Human Development Index ranking compared to its peers thanks to the growing average and mean years of schooling score.

On the other hand, the legal channels of migration are often expensive and uncertain because of regulatory capture. Four influential parliamentarians, including the ex-finance minister of Bangladesh, controlled Bangladesh’s manpower exports to Malaysia, forcing the aspirant immigrants to pay hefty sums. A former Bangladeshi parliamentarian is in Kuwait’s jail for his involvement in human trafficking in the guise of manpower export.

Sometimes, even after paying the sum, thousands of workers fail to reach their destination due to bureaucratic issues. The ones who manage to reach their destinations often return in coffins due to extreme work conditions, especially in the Middle East.

The lack of the required skills and the manifold corruption that make the legal migration channels expensive and uncertain force the youth to look for other alternatives, such as seeking asylum abroad.

All these complexities around migration lead to one root cause: the lack of accountability in governance. In an ideal democracy, people are supposed to express their opinions in different ways, most notably through votes, to hold their government accountable, resulting in better governance.

But, since 2014, Bangladesh has never had a credible national election that could challenge the incumbents accused of facilitating corruption and misgovernance. The UK foreign office has termed the recent poll as not meeting the standards of a credible election due to the lack of credible, open, and fair competition, as all political parties did not take part in the elections and Bangladeshis did not have the fullest range of voting options, as a result.

Bangladesh’s development partners need to realise that the problem of the growing number of asylum seekers from Bangladesh in Europe is closely linked to the absence of democracy and the lack of mechanisms to hold the government accountable. The permanent solution to this problem is to enable the people to restore democracy and accountability in countries like Bangladesh, not to endorse their governments after the elections and maintain business-as-usual relations.●

Aaqib Md Shatil is a Research and Communication Consultant at the Sydney Policy and Analysis Centre.