These five men, all farmers from the rural backwaters of Bangladesh, were flotsam for our bureaucracy for three months recently. They didn’t know what was swirling around them and had absolutely no control over their fate. All the while that they were stuck here and not allowed to work, their already-poor families fell into financial desperation.
Their experience reveals a side of Singapore we can’t be proud of.
Unable to eke out much of a living from their tiny plots of land, and without much education — Ali Abbas had only four years of school, Chisty had eight, and the rest in between — they were attracted by a job recruiter’s promise of good farm-sector work in Malaysia. They had absolutely no idea that Malaysia had banned recruitment of Bangladeshi workers four years ago [update: the ban has just been lifted, 1 Jan 2013] and that the scheme was therefore illegal.
The recruiter Zahid did say however that going directly from Dhaka to Kuala Lumpur would be a “problem”, but the five men had no clue what kind of problem that might be. They hardly knew a thing about the outside world and didn’t feel they would understand the explanation even if they got one. International travel and border protocols were all mysteries to them. In any case, Zahid was well known in their part of Bangladesh as a professional businessman who had long been in the job placement business, with considerable success too. He would take care of all the details.
Zahid told them that the “proper way” to enter Malaysia was to fly to Singapore first, and then enter Malaysia from here. However, almost at the last minute, plans were changed. They were told they’d be flying Dhaka to Singapore, then Singapore to Indonesia, then Indonesia to Malaysia. Committed to the deal and anxious for work, the men could hardly have objected.
Each man had also paid 100,000 Taka (about S$1,538 at today’s exchange rate) to Zahid as the first installment of the agent’s fee. The balance 200,000 Taka (about S$3,077) would only become due after getting to Malaysia and starting work. Zahid was a reputable man; the way he structured the deal showed that he was sincere.
Just before they left Bangladesh on Friday, 12 October 2012, Zahid gave them a Singapore SIM card and assured them that on arrival at Changi airport, his sub-agent would contact them. The sub-agent would provide them with the necessary tickets and boarding passes for onward travel to Indonesia.
And so the men, each with just a small bag of clothes, armed with newly-minted but genuine passports, said goodbye to their families and entrusted their lives to a giant metal tube hurtling through the sky.
Arrival at Changi
They arrived at Changi at around 4:30pm on Friday 12 October 2012, only to wait anxiously for a phone call. It wasn’t until 8 pm before their phone rang, but instead of the sub-agent, it was Zahid on the line. They’d have to wait within the terminal for about 24 hours, he said. Reason: something about their Indonesian visas being delayed. But don’t worry, the sub-agent will show up.
After a sleepless overnight wait in an alien airport, their nerves a little frayed, stomachs growling, the sub-agent finally called a little before noon on Saturday. They arranged to meet somewhere within the airport and he handed them a new set of tickets and boarding passes. “Go to Gate D47,” he told him in English, a language that only Chisty had a halting knowledge of. The others barely knew ten words.
They had to rush to D47; they were already somewhat late.
At D47, the airline staff, on looking at their documents, took them aside and put them in a room. The police were called. A Bengali interpreter came too. And their nightmare began.
The police officers asked them where they got their visas, tickets and boarding passes.
From the sub-agent, they said.
Well, describe the man then, the police said.
Several hours later, they were taken to a police station and then held two nights in lock-ups till they were taken to court. The court ordered seven more days in remand. So back to the lock-ups they went. In court again on 22 October; remand extended to 29 October.
They didn’t know what was going on. They didn’t know what, if anything, they did wrong. They were terrified that they might have to spend years in jail in a foreign country where almost nobody spoke their language, while at home their families starved and money-lenders came to seize their sisters and sell them into prostitution.
At TWC2, the phone rang
I think it was a Tuesday — that would be 30 October — when the phone at the office of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) rang. I volunteer there, but it was not me who took the call. It was one of our social workers.
Later, he told me, “The CPIB was on the line.” CPIB is the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.
“Why?” I asked. “What has CPIB got to do with migrant workers?”
“They said they’ve got five Bangladeshis whom they have to release — they have no reason to hold them because investigations show they are victims — but they have nowhere to stay. They’re asking if we can help.”
My colleague, the social worker, continued: “But the men are not allowed to leave Singapore. CPIB wants to keep them here, maybe as prosecution witnesses. They said it will be for two weeks to one month.”
Compassion clouded our minds and we said we would try to help. It would be heartless to throw them out onto the streets in a foreign country with no money in hand. Moreover, if they were victims of some trafficking scheme, we would like to do our part to ensure that the perpetrators face justice. Still, we needed a few days to look around for a place. Fortunately, a well-wisher offered us the use of his house, but we needed 48 hours to organise sleeping mats, toiletries, cooking and eating utensils — the men are Muslim and therefore need a separate set. It was Thursday before we took them in.
Take stock of the situation here. The men were victims of some shady scheme, but nonetheless they were held in police lock-ups for more than two weeks. It might have been longer if the police did not manage to catch the sub-agent, whose name was Siva (may not be his real name, but it’s the name the men knew him by). His capture would have indicated to the investigating officers that the men were telling the truth.
How did the men know the police had caught him? One day during the remand period, they were called by the police to stand on one side of a mirrored glass window. On the other side was Siva.
Why was CPIB involved? Why not the normal police? We may never know. One possibility is that Siva being able to enter a controlled area with boarding passes when the men never queued up at the airline’s check-in counter to show their passports, would be a highly suspicious chain of events. Was there something wrong with the check-in process? But I am only guessing.
Why doesn’t the government have facilities for housing foreigners whom they need as witnesses? Every year in the wake of the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, our government makes a song and dance about how wonderfully they are doing to combat the scourge. When they don’t even have accommodation and support structures for victims and witnesses? Well, this question is better directed at the government. Certainly, CPIB had no means to house them; I’m not sure if other branches of the government have such facilities either. Instead they approached a charity for help. It’s not even as if the government gives TWC2 funding for our operations. Not a cent.
So the net result was that a charity subsisting on donations was asked to help out a government well-known for its overflowing treasury.
Where were the men for the two nights after release, before we took them in?
Our social worker told me, his voice trilling with amazement, that, unable to find a place for them for the night, the CPIB officer in charge of the case took them back to his home. Yes, here we have a man using his private resources helping out a government well-known for its overflowing treasury. The incredible contrast between the gaps and incapabilities of the official processes and the creative kindness of an officer almost boggles the mind.
Unfortunately, the men could only stay one night. I heard that because the officer’s wife was returning from vacation the next day, the men had to be out of his home by then.
The second night they spent in the CPIB office, I am told. They had nothing to eat for over 24 hours.
To the shelter
Their hunger showed. On the way to the shelter (the well-wisher’s house), our social worker had with him some biscuits and other snacks, meant to stock up the place for the next week or so. But the men couldn’t wait. They stuffed their mouths like they were possessed. Even fellow passengers noticed. A woman sitting nearby remarked to our social worker, “The men look very hungry like they’ve not even for days.”
One has to wonder: How does our bureaucracy treat the people they are responsible for? Or do they feel no responsibility?
But this was only the beginning.
They stayed at the well-wisher’s house for over two months. There was nothing to do. Day in day out, there was only boredom to look forward to. They had each been issued a Special Pass to regularise their stay in Singapore, but the passes contained a stern condition that they should not work.
This meant they had no money at all. They could only depend on what TWC2 gave them. TWC2 is always very careful about the money we disburse, limiting it to grocery purchases — must be backed by receipts — and the occasional phone card so that they could keep in touch with their families. There was no money for transport, which meant they couldn’t even get beyond walking distance from the house. Needless to say, the police didn’t offer to contribute to the costs.
With nothing to do, the men began to sleep late, rousing themselves before noon only because they needed to cook. They were no other chores to do around the house, not even much by way of laundry since they had only about three shirts each. The highlight of each week was the chance to go to the supermarket to buy rice, meat, vegetables, etc. Occasionally a few of TWC2’s other Bangladeshi beneficiaries would make a trip to visit them, and the five men might have a chance to chat with some new friends in their native language. But the house was far from downtown and these visits were relatively rare. Days would pass with absolutely nothing to do.
Under such conditions it was no surprise that depression began to set in.
We thought about pressing the authorities to let them work, but almost immediately decided it would be hopeless. Only the Manpower ministry could make that decision, not the police, and the Manpower ministry would surely say this case was none of their business. In any case who would hire them when they couldn’t speak English?
No court dates
One month passed and we heard nothing about court dates. On enquiry, we were informed that the CPIB had handed the case to the Airport Police — why, we were not told — and that Siva had disappeared after posting bail. Absconded. Vanished.
The five men’s Special Passes were extended another month, perhaps in the hope that Siva would be caught within that time and brought to court. So another month passed, taking a heavier emotional and psychological toll on the men. When we go home? they asked repeatedly. How our family eat? We had no answers for them.
To help relieve the boredom, we asked two of them to come to the office to help clean out the place. We had stuff that needed to be sorted and disposed. More importantly, at least they’d feel a little bit useful. It was also a chance to let them eat at the nearby coffeeshop where they’d get a change of diet.
Should we throw them out?
It seemed to us that the authorities virtually forgot about them. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. If ever they came to mind, it was as objects to be kept or moved around to suit the bureaucracy’s purposes. Nobody asked about the men’s feelings, their worries and all the other complications the enforced stay was causing them and their families.
I mentioned the problem to a fellow volunteer at TWC2, telling her that so long as Siva couldn’t be found, there was no saying how long the men would be held here.
Putting on a look of incredulous consternation, she said, “So, if we can’t find the culprit to punish, we’ll just punish the victims?”
By late December my colleagues and I at TWC2 began discussing how we could impress on the bureaucracy the urgency of the problem. We needed to make them aware that keeping men idle here exacts a terrible psychological toll. Five families in Bangladesh were also being penalised when none of the men did anything wrong.
Then in the last week of December, Babu’s mother passed away. He was distraught with the thought that he couldn’t be there on her last days, and that she died filled with worry about him. Maybe if he had been able to send home some money, she might have been able to see a doctor. His grief in turn ratcheted up the emotional turmoil within others concerning their own families. It was crisis time.
TWC2 was roused to action and a a letter to the Airport Police was drafted. It reminded the police that at the beginning we were told the stay would only be one month at most; but it’s been more than two months now. The psychological, emotional and economic toll was unconscionable. What we didn’t say: And you’re no closer to catching Siva.
Just then, the police called. Would TWC2 pay the airfares of the men back?
The question was preposterous. It was as if a rich man in a Lexus came up to a roadside hawker, asking for a free bowl of noodles for his hungry chauffeur.
We had only a one-word reply: No.
It was ridiculous that a government with an overflowing treasury, who was always ready to brag about their efforts combating trafficking — and I will leave you to judge how much those efforts are worth — would once again be appealing to a charity for resources.
Following our emphatic “No”, they must have scrambled around for the next few days because we heard nothing more. In the meantime, we sent off our letter to them fearing that once again, they would lapse into inaction.
This morning, Wednesday 9 January 2013, they finally called again. They’ve made arrangements to fly the men home on 10 January [Update: they managed to get onto an earlier flight and flew home on the evening of 9 January 2013]. I think it’s the government paying for the tickets, as it should be.
Case closed. Perhaps. Except that I don’t think we do justice to Chisty’s, Ali Abbas’, Toriqul’s and Repon’s wasted months of suffering and Babu’s inconsolable grief unless I tell you their story.