It is one of the world’s most densely populated countries. Here, three out of four citizens live on less than US$2 a day, and rising sea levels may leave one in eight homeless by 2050. The best way to survive Bangladesh may be to leave it.
Eight million Bangladeshis have migrated to 143 countries, with 3.5 million in neighboring India, which is currently constructing the world’s longest border fence to keep any more out. Countries like Qatar, Libya, Bahrain, and the UAE, however, welcome them as cheap workers in construction and domestic service: 95 percent of female Bangladeshi migrants now work as servants in the Middle East. But migrant jobs are often controlled by the regional kafala sponsorship system, which permits employers to hold workers’ passports and requires their permission if workers wish to change jobs, open a bank account or leave the country. Within this system, protective labor laws have little sway: two out of three Bangladeshi women working in the Middle East end up assaulted or imprisoned by their bosses, according to the International Organization for Migration, and migrant men work long grueling days in sweltering heat, sleeping eight to a room in desert labor camps.
One million Bangladeshis have been enslaved overseas over the past 30 years, according to the Global Slavery Index 2013, but their government hasn’t made any effort to curb emigration, as underpaid expatriates can be an asset. Between June 2011 and 2012, overseas Bangladeshis sent home $12.8 billion worth of remittances – roughly six times the foreign aid the country received that year.