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Faith and ‘free’ visas secure the Saudi stranglehold over Bangladeshi migrants

Workers pay between US$4000 to US$6000 for jobs that pay pittance at best, or that don’t exist at worst. In the first of the two-part report on migration from Bangladesh to Saudi and other Gulf states, we investigate the high costs of migration and the lure of the kingdom.

On February 22, 2024

In 2023, 1.3 million Bangladeshis emigrated for work. Of them, 38.2% went to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia alone. Since the 1990s, over five million have sought a livelihood in the Kingdom. That’s a third of all migration and nearly half of all female migration from Bangladesh. There have been bans on recruitment from both the Bangladeshi government and the Gulf states, mass deportations, rampant wage theft and yet the lure of Saudi has only become stronger. It’s the dream destination, where even if things become dire, all would be forgiven given the vicinity of the holy land. A chance to perform Hajj or Umrah was worth the risks. “And if we die there, we go to jannat,” says Debu, who was attending the final day of pre-departure orientation at one of the several training centres in Cumilla district, which has the distinction of sending most migrants from Bangladesh. Debu’s comment was dismissive of the problems that they may encounter in Saudi, but his thoughts are echoed by both aspiring and returnee migrants across villages and districts.

Activist Syed Saiful Haque echoes this almost verbatim as what he has heard and witnessed over the decades. “Men pay as steep a fee as BDT400,000-BDT500,000 (US$3650-4600) for Saudi. It’s the sacred land, so Muslims want to go there. Even if they die there they will go to Jannat is what they think.” No amount of awareness and education by government or NGOs, such as his own, will sway their belief. Saiful is the Chairman of WARBE (Welfare Association for the Rights of Bangladeshi Emigrants) Development Foundation.

At destination, this facet of the faith takes a different hue. Abdul Latheef a social worker in Riyadh says one of the reasons migrants are scared to file complaints or confront employers is that they do not want to be deported and banned from re-entry. It would be a huge blow to their beliefs to not be able to carry out one of the key tenets of Islam – to perform Hajj. “How can you ban them from entering their holy land, where they want to go for pilgrimage? This is how employers get away with abusing workers too.”

The dream of living and working in a sacred place is peddled and facilitated by a complex machinery. Activists and officials call the dalals (middlemen) ‘dream sellers’, but as aspiring migrants, returnees and families share their experience, it becomes evident that the dreams are more than a commercial ploy. The nature of recruitment, particularly to Saudi, employs a unique modus operandi. While registered recruitment agents do play a critical role, the actual process is far from straightforward and goes through a maze of actors, including the dalals (unregistered sub-agents). Families and friends working in the kingdom procure visas from their network – employers, families of employers – and then sell these to job seekers back home either directly or through dalals and agents. Though stakeholders across the labour migration eco-system agree on one thing – that visa trading is rampant and normalised, there seems no clear path out of it. Every time one avenue of visa trading is axed, Hydra-like, another one or two emerge. 

Of all labour-sending countries in the GCC corridor, Bangladeshis are said to shell out the highest recruitment costs, both in absolute terms and in proportion to their salaries. According to our research, nearly 70% of the amount goes to pay illegal fees and bribes. As the head of a recruitment agents association says, the corruption is so deep, there is a profit margin at every step of the migration process. Throw into the mix the recent Saudi regulation that has made the pre-departure professional accreditation programme – Takamol – mandatory, and add another US$50 to the already steep costs.

The financial benefits of migration also seem to be dwindling, but the numbers boarding flights headed to the GCC states are only on the rise. Inward remittances have become almost stagnant (see Table 1), and reducing per capita; the reasons are multifold, none of which stymies rampant visa trade. Since official remittance figures take into account only regular financial channels, Saiful suspects workers are still sending back money, but through the hundi or hawala system (see Sidebar). Those who are on irregular status, and particularly the large number that originally went on the so-called free visas, would not have access to regular remittance channels without proper documentation.


Migration and Remittances






Number of Bangladeshis at destination (2021-2023)
21,942.76 1,305,453 21,285.31 1,135,873 22,070.87 617,209 21,752.27 217,669 7,400,000 
3281.75 497,674 4015.49 612,418 4152.07 457,227 5128.48 1,61,726 2,280,000
923.75 127,883 729.5 179,612 893.92 55,009 1483.19 21,071 703,840
3675.08 98,422 2593.23 101,775 1505.97 29,202 2507.64 1082 760,000
1280.18 56,148 1360.31 24,447 1164.54 11,158 1132.58 3608 420,000 
1507.31 36,548 1611.97 20,422 1474.89 1848 1569.14 1744 350,000
554.95 1 520.28 10 399.63 11 520.34 3 200,000
*In US$ Million Source: BMET databases  |  ** Annual out migration  | *** Across 137 destination countries

Note: Currently, Oman and Bahrain do not recruit from Bangladesh.  The UAE allows only recruitment of women, but does not issue job visas for men.

"Based on interviews with various stakeholders, from steep costs of migration and increasing demand for skills to low wages and increasing cost of living in destination, it does appear that poorer sending countries end up subsidising affluent receiving countries. "

If it’s no longer as lucrative as it used to be, and increasingly expensive and exploitative to migrate and work abroad even as local unemployment rates have been declining – could faith alone explain the large numbers paying hefty bribes to go to Saudi in particular? 

Returnees, families of migrants, and grassroots advocates have a far more nuanced take on why people pay high migration costs, and it’s not just about the country being both one of the highest and most densely populated in the world. Based on interviews with various stakeholders, from steep costs of migration and increasing demand for skills to low wages and increasing cost of living in destination, it does appear that poorer sending countries end up subsidising affluent receiving countries. 

Bangladesh is currently pouring huge resources into skilling and certification, with 64 Technical Training Centres (TTC) across one of the most densely populated places in the world. The third most crowded district in the country, Cumilla, accounts for the largest chunk of migration and remittances – in 2023, of the total 1,305,453 who went abroad to work, 108,870 were from Cumilla.  


"Men pay as steep a fee as BDT400,000-BDT500,000 (US$3650-4600) for Saudi. It’s the sacred land, so Muslims want to go there. Even if they die there they will go to Jannat is what they think."

Skills, training, and a race to flee

The Cumilla District Employment Manpower Office (DEMO), Assistant Director Rahinure Islam says, “There are 2700 recruitment agents in total in the country. But from Cumilla as in the rest of the 63 districts, 80% are going on independent visas obtained from relatives and friends, and the rest through company visas. To go to KSA, even if you receive a visa directly, you have to go through a registered agent, and that’s how they make their money. For female workers it is supposed to be zero cost – visa, medical everything is free but dalals still charge between BDT20,000-40,000 (US$182-365).”

Cumilla TTC Principal Kamruzzaman says though there is an Economic Processing Zone (EPZ) that provides jobs locally the lure of migration is too strong. “In fact, it’s so difficult to counter, the government bank — Probashi Kallyan bank — gives loans at 9% for migration expenses to dissuade them from selling land.”

The TTCs provide 14 occupational training courses that are not migration-specific, but 15% of the students go abroad within six months, he says. Skilling for electricians, drivers, plumbers in particular is in high demand. In addition, the Recognition of Prior Learning programme is also in full swing, and last year around a 1000 candidates received the certification.

“We are seeing that people are very sincere about being trained and skilled. It was different five years ago when there were not enough programmes or interest. The government is also investing in education. Workers themselves feel if unskilled they will attract low salaries. A welder will earn BDT60,000 (US$547) while an unskilled worker would earn a third of it only. South Korea pays even as much as BDT200,000 (US$1820) for welders based on skill levels.”  

In Mirpur, Dhaka, the Bangladesh-German Technical Training Centre is situated inside a sprawling complex of buildings, with indoor and outdoor training facilities. Within the compound are vehicles of all capacities, and a garage that resembles a chop shop, where the driving and automobile mechanics classes are held. Inside a large hall there are multiple sessions in progress, and in the central part are a few tables converted into a semi-cubicle with plywood planks, and a camera atop the box. This is where the 90-minute Saudi Takamol certification testing takes place. This camera is linked to monitors in Saudi, who oversee the testing. Once a week there’s a test day. This centre is one of six that provides the facility. There are two components to the testing – one computerised test that involves 30 Multiple Choice Questions and a skill test.

Trainers Fauzia and Shireen Akhtar and job placement officers Masoon and Anwar, giving a tour of the facility, share that Bangladesh bore the costs of testing for the first 1000 candidates when Takamul was rolled out in February 2023. At US$50 per candidate that was US$50,000 from the South Asian state to meet the Kingdom’s requirement, which has neither a minimum wage nor a sliding scale wage based on skill level. Now workers have to pay the US$50, plus all expenses they bear to come to these centres with the help of the dalals and agents. 

The jobs on offer are diverse, with the construction sector still attracting large numbers. “They are also recruited to work in shipyards, a skill Bangladeshis have, and in security as well.” Masoon and Anwar share some big names as top recruiters – Nakilat, Transguard, and Aramco. “Recruitment agents are bringing these jobs from Dubai, Qatar, and Saudi. Only .04% go through the Bangladesh Overseas Employment and Services Limited (BOESL), the rest all use private agencies.”  

Apart from the 14 three-month courses and Pre-Departure Orientation (PDO), two types of housekeeping training take place at the TTC – the one for Gulf states is for two months and for Asia Pacific three months. There’s a stark difference between the facilities in the two adjacent training rooms. The former is run down, with outdated equipment and the latter has more specialised training along with the required tools.

“There are currently over 1.1 million women working abroad, almost all of whom work as domestic workers, the majority in Saudi Arabia,” according to the trainers. The average age of aspirants is 25-40 years.

But Kamruzamman notes that there are fewer domestic workers undergoing training compared to pre-Covid times. “It’s a two-month course now, and last year (2022) we had only sent 120 in total [from Cumilla]. The year before it was 200.” This does not mean women are not going abroad, just that they are no longer going via regular routes.

There has been a steep increase in female migration from Bangladesh, primarily driven by the demand from Saudi which lifted a seven-year ban on recruitment from the country in 2016, with a key condition that a third of the recruitment would have to be for female domestic workers. So from just 13 in 2013, the figures jumped to 68,286 and 83,354 in 2015 and 2016. Post-covid there has been a dip; still in 2023, 50254 of the 76,108 female migrants were headed to the Kingdom. [see part 2 on Women’s Migration]

Rahinure who has worked in this field for several years says there isn’t much thought put into the decision to go abroad. “They are earning a minimum of BDT20,000 here but they don’t calculate the cost of migration. There are over 2.2 million youth entering the job market every year, and only a third look for options locally. Last year 1.1 million went abroad. There is a pilot project in five TTCs where they are given allowances, training, and a job placement with a minimum of BDT20,000 salary. Still, they are reluctant to stay back.”

The DEMO office also holds PDOs. Eight batches of 100 each every week. The mountain of footwear at the entrance of the office is an indication of a full house. Right outside, in the narrow alley, are several touts and dalals looking to make new deals. The largest batch is on the sheltered rooftop. As Rahinure takes the mic to address the class, he urges them to open a bank account, to peruse the contract, and to be careful about what they sign. The class nods along. But when it was time for a show of hands, almost all of them had already paid hefty fees, with no receipts. “The sender of the visas are relatives and they don’t question them, and not to mention the demand for job visas abroad is so high, they don’t have the power to bargain,” says Rahinure.

Entrapment by visa trade

Kamruzzaman says you would not find a single family without a migration connection and someone in the Gulf. A family connection also means that visas are easier to come by. You can see that in the relative affluence of the district, with a lot of flourishing businesses and wealthy homes.

The Cumilla TTC is a three-storey building. The centre itself is a complex of offices much like the one in Dhaka. It is less congested, but on the day has at least about 600 persons spread across various training rooms. There are several PDO sessions in progress in different rooms, with over 150 aspirants in each, almost all of them male. The majority were first-timers and headed to KSA. A show of hands on who paid money – other than the prescribed fees – and it was unanimous. Every single person had. In other districts, other training centres, and other PDO sessions, covering over 2000 aspiring migrant workers the response was almost identical. No one knew that they were not expected to pay for the job and on average they paid BDT500,000 each. 

A few at Cumilla were going to Oman (paying BDT200,000) and UAE (BDT300,000), but the Saudi-bound ones paid the highest, upwards of BDT500,000 (US$ 4560) and at times even BDT700,000 (US$6390). There is no question of not paying. Except for a negligible minority, everyone who was headed to KSA had received their visa directly from a friend or family. Yet the recruitment agent plays a role, as it is a Saudi requirement. The dalal will only give contracts and help them to go after we get the visa, they say.

The trainees are aware that wages in Saudi are lower than in some other Gulf countries, and there are added expenses due to the recently introduced VAT. Yet, they prioritise jobs in the Kingdom, stating the oft-repeated reason. “It is a Muslim country, we can visit the Kaaba and Mecca.”

At the TTC in Munshiganj, the trainer says every family in the area, as in Cumilla, has someone working abroad. The curriculum at the centres is no match for the narrative fed by friends and family abroad. In one room of the brand new TTC complex, there is a PDO underway, with over 60 members, of whom five were women. All of them had family abroad, and except for the women, the rest received job offers through their personal connections. They still have to use an agent to process the paperwork.

Like at other centres, the average charges borne by the jobseekers is between BDT400,000 and BDT500,000. The promised salary ranges between BDT40,000 and 45,000, though they have seen no contract.

“The longer you stay, the better it gets,” one of them says, when asked how they plan to repay the debts accrued. There are no concrete plans, nor have they calculated how long it would take to recoup the amount paid for the job.

More than half are going on ‘free visas’ [see sidebar] but not all are aware it is illegal. 

“Our families will protect us.”

“Even those going on company visas instead of free visas are still paying, so what’s the big deal?”

“And you earn more on a free visa than if you are with a company. More job mobility, flexibility,” one who has been abroad, says authoritatively. Everyone else leans into that hope.

Any attempts to speak about free visas not being a legal avenue are silently brushed aside, until one person gets up, vehemently dismissing the fear and warning. “So what? We will still die in the holy land.” They erupt into a chorus of cheers, except for the doubtful looks on the women, who were home nurses.

Once again, unshakeable and unquestioned faith in the holy land. Repeatedly.

“There is no ethical recruitment at all. There are 2200 agents currently registered. Visa trade is rampant,” Saiful points out. “What this translates to is workers going on free visas and many becoming irregular and working in vulnerable situations. This also means they no longer have access to regular financial channels.” He estimates there’s been a loss of US$4.5 million in the last year alone for the state, as money is sent through the hundi system and not via regular remittance. This could be another reason that the remittance data shows a dip, in comparison to the rising numbers of migrant workers.

According to Shakirul Islam, an activist, one of the main reasons for unskilled migration is the trading of free visas. “When ‘free’ there is no requirement for any skill or knowledge, and it is easy to go abroad this way. Recruitment agents collect these visas from individuals living abroad, giving false information to workers.”

"If the problem is with the worker, we make them continue. Sometimes women use the phone too much, during work, which annoys employers and they slap them. It is normal, since they are taken there to work. Using the mobile can is a problem..."

Systemic corruption and the steep task of ethical recruitment

Registered agents are adamant that their role is problematised only because of the corrupt recruitment system, and dalals insist that their services are indispensable to facilitate migration. Mohammed Iqbal, a member of the Cumilla Grievance Management Committee (GMC) established by WARBE, is also a dalal, who spent 12 years in Saudi working as an office assistant. “I have links there to send visas for jobs. Have sent 10 people so far in the last two years, two in Dubai and the rest to Saudi – to work as cleaners, drivers, and at a petrol bunk.”

Explaining the process, he says friends ‘pass on’ visas from Gulf states, and the agency in Bangladesh carries out all the other processes to send workers abroad. “The worker gets a three-month iqama (residence permit card). Though there’s a contract given here it is not valid at destination. After three months they can switch jobs.” Iqbal says of the 10 he has sent abroad, only three got a proper job with a contract, one came back and nine are still at destination, on irregular status. “After three months iqama if they don’t find a job they are illegal,” he says as a matter of fact, not quite recognising his own complicity in this forced irregularity. “The company is supposed to process their job contract but does not. In 2006 when I went to Saudi I got a two-year iqama. Now it’s only one year.”

Iqbal receives BDT300,000 from each of the workers but says he had to give most of it to the friends who ‘brought’ him the visa. He has filed a case against his friend in Saudi, but it is of no use he feels, since they live abroad. 

Dillu, works as a dalal mainly in Munshiganj sits down reluctantly for a chat. He has been doing this work for 15 years and works primarily with three recruitment agencies (who have 500 dalals between them) based in Dhaka. Unlike Iqbal, he has never been abroad himself; yet, he is sought after by people in his town and from afar, he says. He has sent over 300 people abroad for work, and over 250 were women, deploying them to Dubai, Saudi, Oman, and Qatar. The last two are friendliest for women he feels. “I don’t go to them, people come to me, and my phone number goes around. Earlier I would send a family member then the others get to know and ask me.”

When workers he sends abroad call with complaints he contacts the agents, and they contact the people abroad. The agent there then takes the initiative to ‘investigate the complaint’, and if the ‘complaint is valid’ the worker is rescued, he explains. “If the problem is with the worker, we make them continue. Sometimes women use the phone too much, during work, which annoys employers and they slap them. It is normal since they are taken there to work. Using the mobile is a problem,” he says, claiming no one he sent abroad has had any trouble, or “at least no major case.”

Dillu receives between BDT10,000-15,000 per worker from the agent. For male workers it is BDT20,000. He makes use of men within the community to round up those interested in going abroad. Bangladesh has proposed registered dalals, and he feels it is a good move. “Logistically difficult to register all of them. But for my own security, to have documentation would be better. Everyone blames us. We are not all guilty. I call the families of workers and try to prove who was wrong and then solve through mediation. The chance of dalal being guilty is 50-50, but people generalise.”

The role of dalals is critical for ease of migration, he insists. “Women have to go to PDO, to Dhaka, for training. Who will take responsibility for all that? We do.” Some of the failed migrations he is blamed for are also because of false medical certificates, which is not his responsibility, he says.


"Tickets are also so expensive. Travel agents receive all tickets or a bulk of it. They sell it at a higher cost, with a huge margin. They are a big and untouchable syndicate. To travel via neighbouring countries is much cheaper."

The Joint Secretary General of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruitments Agents (BAIRA), Tipu Sultan alleges widespread corruption in all spheres of migration, and that agents are merely the fall guys. He and some of his colleagues – BAIRA has about 2000 members – are waiting to meet officials at the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) office in Dhaka. While his colleagues are hesitant to criticise governments at home or abroad, Sultan has no such qualms.

“There is big corruption in the migration sector, from the time of passport issuance. The actual cost is about BDT5000, but workers have to pay BDT10,000. Medical costs are about BDT1500, but they pay BDT10,000. Police clearance certificate should not be more than BDT500, but it costs between BDT3000 and 5000. Every extra paisa is a bribe, at every step there is bribery and corruption. Then we are blamed for recruitment corruption. How do we cover the costs? We are a business. We have to cover all this and make profit, is it not?”

It’s not corruption in the government alone. “Tickets are also so expensive. Travel agents receive all tickets or a bulk of it. They sell it at a higher cost, with a huge margin. They are a big and untouchable syndicate. To travel via neighbouring countries is much cheaper.”

This is a fact as tickets from Bangladesh to any of the Gulf states are exorbitantly priced, anywhere between two to four times the rate from neighbouring Indian or Nepali cities. For instance, a one-way flight from Dhaka to Riyadh costs US$ 1011 but a one-way flight from Kathmandu to Riyadh using the same carrier costs US$ 693. “The BMET is also corrupt,” he states, twirling his finger to indicate the offices in the building, while his colleagues try to divert the subject. “Every lower officer wants ‘under the table’. Just so widespread. How can we even start talking about ethical recruitment in this scenario?”

Deputy Director of BMET, Md Rezwanul Haque Chowdhury agrees that Bangladesh has one of the highest official migration costs (for Saudi it is BDT165,000/US$1500), which gets even higher with all the bribes and illegal fees. “We do have rules but our big challenge is reducing costs. The root cause is trading of visas – there is a competition between workers for these free visas – which drives the costs up,” he says. The buck passes in an eternal chain, pausing only long enough on workers’ own ignorance.

“Our workers are not aware of cost-benefit analysis. It is a grey area at the pre-decision level. We should take some extensive awareness programmes.” Chowdhury also feels that Saudi stakeholders are not serious about protecting workers, particularly females, and “if they were it [the problem] can be overcome to an extent.” On the country’s investments in skills development, Chowdhury stresses this is critical even to tackle visa trading, as workers are not as vulnerable then, and he is confident the emphasis on skill development will have gradual positive results.

On problems in the destination, Sultan says the brokers there demand a lot of money. “The company will give 20-30 visas and we have to give them money for that job order.” And there doesn’t seem to be a viable alternative to that business model, even though some smaller pilot projects on ethical recruitment have been conducted in the country. 

According to BAIRA members, it is the large corporations that do this, but they issue only a few visas. The main problem exists in supply companies that recruit in hundreds and thousands. The conversation moves to bans and its impact, particularly in the context of the UAE that has jobs aplenty. In fact, official data shows remittance from UAE was far higher than from Saudi for a few years. “But, the UAE has put a moratorium on visas for Bangladeshi men; this does not deter workers. They go on visit visas and switch there, as there are so many jobs. Last year alone more than 300,000 went on visit visas. We also sent them on those visas,” Sultan says. The very nature of recruitment in the country is often akin to trafficking. 

Executive Director of Refugees and Migratory Movements Research Unit, C R Abrar says there is not only a lack of awareness of labour trafficking, there is also a turf war between different ministries. “Cases are filed against RAs for trafficking but BMET feels it is their jurisdiction and that home affairs shouldn’t interfere. Powerful members of BAIRA appear to have a hold over important agencies of the state. They extend their influence at various levels, including the Migration Act itself.”

Chairperson, Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), Shakirul Islam seconds Abrar’s concerns about the power of the agents. “There are members of parliament who own agencies. They use their power to negotiate with the government.”

A few years ago, there was a contentious move – a proposed amendment that said the Migration Act supersedes the Trafficking Act. “It was deleted because the civil society protested. The agents have access to corridors of power, because there is a strong nexus between politicians and agents,” Abrar says, dismissing the agents’ claim that they were unfair targets of anti-trafficking measures. 

Shakirul points out that the licensed recruiting agents take credit when talking about remittances but when the focus shifts to unethical recruitment practices that push migrants into exploitative situations, they blame others by saying that workers are going through families. As per his count, 10% go through first-degree relatives and the rest through extended networks, and in either case ‘free visas’ rule the roost.

 “Free visa has a steep economic cost for Bangladesh. Money is flowing backwards to bail out people, and that too through irregular channels like hawala or hundi system. According to our bank rules, there is no official way of sending money abroad.”

This resulted in huge issues during the pandemic when stranded workers were dependent on money sent by families back home.  

While the workers pay the costs and bear the burden of exploitative migration, agents and governments take credit for the large numbers going abroad. But, they are not willing to accept that human trafficking is happening through recruitment agents, he says. “It is not the process, it is the context.”


Illustration: Asma Kalush

Next: Bangladeshi Women – Sought After and Stigmatised