PICS: JANA ASENBRENNEROVA
The holding cell at Maharajganj Police Station in central Kathmandu is dark, austere and cramped with men. Handcuffs hang from the blue-steel door, as if to remind the inmates of the severe limits imposed on their freedom.
When he left home in search of a better future nine months ago, Kamal Khan of Bhola, Bangladesh, had no idea he would end up here. Kamal, the eldest son of a village muezzin, had been led to believe he was going to Iraq as a tailor. But after arriving in Nepal, Kamal's recruiters told him he would be staying "for a few days" before going on to Baghdad. Those days stretched into months, before the Nepal Police picked up Kamal in a pre-dawn raid on 26 May.
Inspector Praveen Pokharel, whose temperament is as sunny as his holding cells are dark, appeared to sympathise. "We arrested 12 Bangladeshis," he said. "Some of them have valid tourist visas, so we will let them go. But this guy's visa has expired. They say they paid a lot of money to agents to get to Arab countries. That's too bad — they won't be going to any Arab country from here."
The plight of people like Kamal Khan fits a broad pattern of deception where many overseas job seekers are being left in the lurch in Nepal by unscrupulous recruiting agents. In most cases, the recruiters — a nexus of Bangladeshi and Nepali agents — lured Bangladeshis by promising to arrange work using Nepali passports, allowing them to get around bans and quotas on Bangladeshis imposed by host countries like Malaysia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
It is feared that hundreds of Bangladeshis could be in limbo in and around Kathmandu after being duped by recruiters. Many would-be migrants are ending up behind bars for immigration offenses, while others face the daunting prospect of returning home with nothing but their debts Deputy Superintendent of Police Deepak Thapa, in charge of the immigration fraud case, claimed: "According to our information, there are more than 1,000 Bangladeshi citizens awaiting Nepali passports in Kathmandu."
The Bangladesh Embassy in Nepal acknowledged that such incidents were on the rise. "Several such cases have been brought to our attention," said Emdadul Haque, First Secretary, Consular section. "We get involved and try to help the victims. We have also written to the authorities in Dhaka to take action."
Khan was joined by 11 other Bangladeshis recruited by the same group. They were housed in squalid conditions in Bagbajar. Tensions often ran high. After a fist-fight broke out between recruiters and migrant workers on 26 May, the police, acting on an anonymous tip, arrested 12 Bangladeshis.
Khan said he had been recruited by an agent named Saifuddin, who was also picked up in the raid. Although Nepali police officers seem to believe they have captured the kingpin of the racketeers, The Daily Star's investigation indicates that he is only a cog in an elaborate network of agents and sub-agents.
The Nepali authorities are eager for success in the fight against immigration scams, following earlier allegations of high-level involvement in passport fraud. Bachchu Ram KC, a foreign ministry official, was arrested in January for providing Nepali passports to foreigners. Shortly afterwards, Nepal's foreign minister Sujata Koirala sacked her principal personal secretary Bharat Sapkota for alleged involvement in the same scandal.
But preventive measures can only go so far. "Ultimately, the government and the private sector must work together to expand legal avenues for the outflow of manpower," said Dr Mokaddem Hossain, professor of sociology at Dhaka University. "When legal routes dry up, people tend to try unorthodox methods."
Meanwhile, Kamal Khan has been deported from Nepal, and arrived in Dhaka after an arduous overland trip through India. For him, the migrant dream has already turned into a nightmare.
"I didn't eat for two days," he said. "I even had to sell my watch to pay for transportation. Now I dread facing my family in Bhola. My father sold a piece of land to send me abroad. What am I going to say to him?"
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