Asian Boat People and the Challenges of Migration Governance: A Source Country Perspective
Bangladeshis rescued from traffickers - Cox's Bazar 5-5-201

This essay series explores the human costs and policy challenges associated with the displacement crises in the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas. The essays explore the myths or misconceptions that have pervaded discussions about these two crises, as well as the constraints or capacity deficiencies have hampered the responses to them. See more ...



In 2014 and 2015 media reports exposed an extensive network of human trafficking in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, where thousands of aspirant migrants succumbed to death and starvation while taking a risky boat journey to Thailand and Malaysia. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.), more than 25,000 people from Bangladesh and Myanmar crossed the Bay of Bengal to seek fortune in Malaysia during the first half of 2015.[1] From mid-2015, the discovery of dead bodies in the Bay of Bengal and mass graves in the jungles of Thailand and Malaysia made it clear that such a huge flow of boat people was not merely an instance of irregular migration. Instead, it was part of a transnational crime targeting the aspirant migrants, who were often kidnapped, lured, and smuggled for forced labor in Malaysia and its neighboring countries in Southeast Asia. Elements of coercion and deception were present in all stages of their journey.

To what extent does the boat migration phenomenon demonstrate the limits of migration governance? The purpose of this essay is to address this question by focusing on Bangladesh as a source country. There are compelling reasons for looking into the boat migration phenomenon through the lens of migration governance. First, international migration is recognized as a livelihood strategy for many poor Bangladeshis.[2] It is thus no surprise that Bangladesh has gradually emerged as a major supplier of short-term labor force to the oil-rich Gulf nations and the newly industrialized Southeast Asian countries. Second, successive governments in Bangladesh have identified labor migration as a thrust sector and made sustained efforts to ensure safe labor migration for its people. Despite the growing contribution of foreign remittances to the national economy, establishing a fairer migration regime has emerged as a challenging task for Bangladesh. An analysis of the boat migration phenomenon provides an opportunity to investigate the nature of the problem and its underlying causes.

Conventional wisdom suggests that a combination of push, pull, and network factors have contributed to the Bangladeshi boat migration.[3] First, widespread poverty and lack of employment have pushed people to explore labor migration as a livelihood strategy. Second, the demands for cheap labor in the informal sectors of Malaysia and Thailand have generated the demands for migrant workers. Third, the growing role of illicit business of human smugglers and traffickers has worked as a catalyst for the process of irregular migration. 

While the above factors can explain the demand and supply mechanism in the international labor market, they do not offer any satisfactory answer to the question why Bangladesh as a source country failed to prevent, intercept, and mitigate the irregular flow of migrants. This essay addresses the knowledge gap by making two major claims. First we argue that the boat people phenomenon has to be understood in the context of irregular migration and its connections with human trafficking. Next, we suggest that despite several legal and policy reforms introduced by the government in the migration sector, Bangladesh continues to be a source country for irregular migrants and human trafficking for three principal reasons: shrinking labor markets, weak enforcement of laws, and lack of inter-agency coordination.

Irregular Migration-Human Trafficking Nexus

A nexus between irregular migration and human trafficking has grown over the years, and the boat migration is a clear outcome of this. During the late 1980s a number of Bangladeshis irregularly migrated to Japan via Thailand.[4] However, the introduction of strict visa requirements in the early 1990s closed down the Japanese labor market. Since then Malaysia and Singapore have drawn the attention of prospective migrants, with Thailand becoming the transit point because of its liberal visa system and proximity to these countries.[5] Over the past two decades, frequent changes in the Malaysian government’s foreign workers admission policies, and informal private recruitment practices in Bangladesh have encouraged many Bangladeshis to try their luck in Malaysia through the risky maritime routes in the Indian Ocean.

Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.)

While the irregular migration practices have continued for more than three decades, they only came to international spotlight in 2012.[6] According to the U.N.H.C.R., between January 2012 and May 2015, nearly 150,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar origin adopted the risky boat journey in the Bay of Bengal (Figure 1).[7] This is almost fifteen times the size of boat migration that occurred in the same maritime area during the previous four years (2008-2011). As the number of people interested in irregular maritime migration increased many fold, the boat people became easy targets of human traffickers and pirates.[8] The organized trafficking networks collected people from the resource-poor regions of Bangladesh, and forced them onto crammed fishing trawlers to set sail towards the jungles of Thailand and Malaysia. However, instead of taking the aspirant migrants to Malaysia, the traffickers would keep them as hostages to demand ransom from their families. There were evidences of widespread violation of human rights and torture on the irregular migrants and trafficked in victims at all stages of their journey.[9] Through the risky voyages, a section of those who could reach Thailand were employed in slave-like conditions in the Thai fishing industry. The rest would gradually find jobs in the rubber and palm plantation industries of Malaysia. In most cases they were paid a minimum salary, and some have had to settle for no salary at all.

The Challenges of Migration Governance

The brief account of boat migration from Bangladesh raises serious questions about the ability and willingness of the government to promote fairer migration practices. But one has to understand that although the government is the principal actor for creating the regulatory framework for labor migration from Bangladesh, the private recruiting agencies and their informal intermediaries at the grassroots level play a pivotal role in the migration business. The government established the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment in 2001 with three principal objectives: to control the activities of private recruiting agencies; to search new labor markets; and to promote the rights and welfare of expatriate Bangladeshis by working closely with various stakeholders. Most of these tasks are now regulated by the Overseas Employment and Migrants Act 2013. Bangladesh has also enacted an anti-trafficking law, Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act 2012, which prescribes five to 12 years’ imprisonment and a penalty of not less than the equivalent of approximately $650 (BDT 50,000) for involvement in human trafficking. Despite these institutional and legal reforms, there are serious gaps in exploring new markets for Bangladeshi laborers, enforcement of existing laws, and inter-agency coordination—all of which have contributed to the growth and expansion of human trafficking in the Bay of Bengal. These three major aspects of migration governance failure are explained below.

Shrinking Labor Market and the Crisis of Diplomacy

Among the Gulf countries, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait have long been the major destinations for Bangladeshi workers, whereas in Southeast Asia, Malaysia emerged as a top destination for a brief period in 2007 and 2008. Since 2007-2008, there has been a sharp decline in the outflow of labor migrants to these four countries. (Figures 2 and 3). However, the Bangladesh government has done little to secure new markets or restore older ones, and at the same time has come under international criticism for its poor anti-trafficking strategy. It is in this context, in November 2012, Dhaka and Kuala Lumpur agreed on a state-run manpower recruitment policy, widely known to be the government to government (G2G) migration deal. For Bangladesh, a successful implementation of the G2G deal would demonstrate the government’s ability to negotiate migration opportunities. On the other hand, for Malaysia, the G2G deal would improve the country’s standing in the global anti-trafficking campaign. Although the G2G program was conceived as a win-win game it failed to take off for various reasons, including inept administrative process and endemic corruption in the migration system of both countries. Official statistics show that by April 2013, only 4,500 Bangladeshis could migrate to Malaysia under the G2G program, and by 2015 the number stood at 10,000.[10]

Source: Bangladesh Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (B.M.E.T.) data.






Source: Bangladesh Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (B.M.E.T.) data. Note: There was no significant migrants outflow from Bangladesh to Southeast Asia before 1994.

Drawing lessons from the failure of the G2G system, and to reverse the trend in shrinking labor market, Bangladesh signed a memorandum of understanding with Malaysia in February 2016 with an ambitious goal of sending 1.5 million workers to the country in a three-year period. Under the new ‘G2G Plus’ system, both the government and the private agencies would recruit migrants from Bangladesh to work in the services, manufacturing, construction, and plantation sectors of Malaysia, and the total cost of migration would not exceed $470 (BDT 37,000). The workers would be chosen from a database maintained by the Bangladesh’s Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training, which operates under the expatriate ministry.[11] The G2G deal was widely challenged by the Malaysian trade unions and rights groups, which demanded that existing undocumented migrants be regularized first before conducting any fresh recruitment. There were additional concerns that the appointment of a Malaysian firm, Synerflux, for overall management of the G2G deal would create market distortions. Amidst such challenges and controversies, the Malaysian government scrapped the G2G deal in March 2016.[12]

Malaysia’s turn-around came as a surprise and diplomatic fiasco for Bangladesh, which has already developed a huge database of more than a million aspirant migrants after losing its traditional job markets in the Gulf region and Southeast Asia.[13] The reduced scope of formal migration has not only created the space for irregular migration but also made aspirant migrants easy targets of human trafficking.[14]

Lack of Enforcement of Migration and Trafficking Laws

The second challenge to migration management comes from the government’s inability to regulate the informal intermediaries through the enforcement of newly legislated laws for combating human trafficking and promoting labor migration. Existing studies show that the legislative and administrative measures often carry little significance at the village level where aspirant migrants depend heavily on informal networks for migration related information, jobs, visas and travel arrangements.[15] An extensive network of informal intermediaries fills this information vacuum by capitalizing on huge demand of outmigration among the relatively unskilled and illiterate people from the rural and coastal areas, some of whom are victims of climate change.[16]

While the Human Trafficking Act 2012 proscribes and punishes all forms of human trafficking, it prohibits the fraudulent recruitment of labor migrants only if the recruiter knows that the recruited worker will be subjected to forced labor. Despite such legal provision, very few traffickers are ultimately convicted and prosecuted. According to official estimates, in 2013 alone among the 1312 recorded incidents of trafficking, 366 cases were lodged but only 6 cases ended in conviction and with 12 persons being convicted.[17] This is mostly due to members of the law enforcing agencies, immigration officers, lawyers, and administrative and judicial officials at various levels, are unaware of the law, and thus unable to prosecute the traffickers and their agents under the provisions of this Act. Trainings offered to various agencies including police and members of judiciary are inadequate for full implementation of the law. As a result, concerned agencies often fail to separate incidences of human trafficking from that of irregular migration as many similarities exist between the two. Hence, traffickers are often held and prosecuted as illegal 'associate' of irregular migration. There are evidences of arrested traffickers being prosecuted under the Migrants Act 2013 which has a provision for 10 years' imprisonment and financial penalty up to $12,500 (BDT 1,000,000) against the human smugglers. Victims’ families often report that those who are prosecuted under the Migrants Act, are initially imprisoned but are soon released on bail and then return to their past practices of human smuggling.

Prosecution of the trafficking related cases are further complicated by the unholy alliance of a section of corrupt government officials with the traffickers. Furthermore, Bangladesh lacks a formal referral mechanism to pursue trafficking cases for which the victims do not feel motivated enough to lodge cases against the traffickers. Due to the lack of enforcement of both the Trafficking Act 2012 and the Migrants Act 2013, Bangladesh has miserably failed to prevent human trafficking, and was thus ranked as a Tier 2 country in the 2015 U.S. Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. This Tier 2 ranking indicates that the country does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to improve its compliance.[18]

There are also problems with the Migrants Act 2013, which does not contain any provision for regulating the informal intermediaries and migrant recruiters who often work as the most proactive agents in the supply system. Instead of including the intermediaries under a legal regime, articles 31, 32, and 33 of the Act stipulate financial penalty and up to five years of imprisonment for false promise of job, confiscation of passport or other travel documents, and unlawful procurement or trading of visa and work permit.  While these three provisions have the potential to reduce fraudulent recruiting practices, lack of enforcement has made the Migrants Act quite redundant. This is evident in the fact that despite reports of widespread fraudulence and exploitation in the migration sector, so far not a single lawsuit has been filed under the Migrants Act.[19] Also there is almost no mechanism in place to inform migrants and their families regarding the utility of the Migrants Act.

Inter-Agency Coordination Deficits

A third problem relates to lack of coordination among the concerned ministries. Although the expatriate ministry is the lead agency for governing migration affairs in the country, its power and authority are often constrained by the lack of coordination with other concerned ministries such as the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Among the concerned ministries, the expatriate ministry’s coordination with the Ministry of Home Affairs is perhaps the most important due to the fact that the latter is the lead ministry for combating human trafficking. The home ministry has developed a national action plan on counter-trafficking. It has achieved varying level of success in promoting coordination among various national and international stakeholders involved in the prevention, interception, and reintegration of trafficking victims. The major law enforcement and border control agencies in Bangladesh, including Police, Border Guard, and Coast Guard, operate under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Ironically, most of the law enforcement initiatives taken by these three agencies to fight the human trafficking networks tend to be reactive rather than proactive.[20] This was evident in the increasing flow of boat people in the Bay of Bengal, and an emphasis on rescue, recovery, repatriation, and integration of trafficking victims.[21]

A preventive approach to anti-trafficking requires promoting safe migration practices, and this is one area where the Ministry of Expatriates Welfare and Overseas Employment is expected to work closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for various reasons, including the detailing out of work contracts with host nations and their companies, issuing clearances, and processing paper works in overseas missions. Although the labor attachés in foreign missions are dispatched by the expatriate ministry to monitor the status of migrants and to provide them with various services, the labor wings in foreign missions are under-resourced and under-staffed to meet the needs of migrant workers. The problem is further complicated when the Foreign Ministry, which seeks to preserve its control over missions abroad, often resents the postings of labor attachés. Such turf battles have hampered the ability of the government, especially the Ministry of Expatriates, to assess the status of migrant workers in foreign countries and to explore new markets for the aspirants.[22] The cumulative effect of such bureaucratic competition has ultimately been to impede fairer labor migration and indirectly to contribute to a weaker anti-trafficking response.

Policy Imperatives and Concluding Remarks

Several policy recommendations can be drawn from the above discussion.

  • First, the nexus between irregular migration and human trafficking needs to be documented and brought to the attention of national decision-makers. In addition, the search for new labor markets should be given a top priority to expand the net of formal labor recruitment, and to reduce the vulnerability of aspirants to human trafficking network. Bangladesh should conduct extensive market research and consider various dynamics affecting the safety and well being of its migrants before making formal deal with a receiving country.
  • Second, the enforcement of Human Trafficking Act 2012 and the Overseas Employment and Migrants Act 2013 require legal training among the lawyers, law enforcers, judicial personnel, and other practitioners. There is also a need for developing an awareness campaign so that rural and coastal people can make informed decisions before planning to migrate out of the country.
  • Third, inter-agency collaboration between the expatriate ministry, home ministry, and the foreign ministry need to be improved to enhance the preventive and law enforcement responses to human trafficking. Adopting a migration lens to dealing with human trafficking requires revamping the expatriate ministry rather than squeezing its power.

In conclusion, the proposed actions are doable. The Bangladesh government has clearly articulated its position to collaborate with the regional and global stakeholders in combating human trafficking in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The international community needs to support Bangladesh in its efforts to promote fairer labor migration, and thus reduce the scope for human trafficking.

The authors wish to acknowledge the support of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (R.M.M.R.U.) in preparing the draft.


[1] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.), International Organization for Migration (I.O.M.), and United Nations Office on Drugs and crime (U.N.O.D.C.), “Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea: Proposals for Action,” May 2015, accessed April 15, 2016,; U.N.H.C.R., “Southeast Asia: Mixed Maritime Movements,” April-June 2015, accessed April 15, 2016,

[2] Tasneem Siddiqui, "Migration as a livelihood strategy of the poor: the Bangladesh case" (paper presented at the Regional Conference on Migration, Development and Pro-Poor Policy Choices in Asia. Dhaka, Bangladesh. June 22-23, 2003), accessed April 15, 2016,

[3] Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (R.M.M.R.U.), “A Note on Recent Irregular Migration,” 2015; Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (B.R.A.C.), “Irregular Maritime Migration to Malaysia: Migration Programme Position Paper,” Dhaka: B.R.A.C., 2015.  

[4] Raisul A. Mahmood, “Bangladeshi Clandestine Foreign Workers,” in Emigration Dynamics in Developing Countries II: South Asia, ed. R. Appleyard (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), 176-213.

[5] Mahmood, “Bangladeshi Clandestine Foreign Workers.”

[6] R.M.M.R.U., “A Note on Recent Irregular Migration.”

[7] U.N.H.C.R., “Mixed Maritime Movements: South East Asia.”

[8] B.R.A.C., “Irregular Maritime Migration to Malaysia.”

[9] “Indonesia and Malaysia Agree to Offer 7000 Migrants Temporary Shelter,”The Guardian, May 20, 2015.

[10] “G2G System Fails to Deliver,” New Age, August 18, 2014; Hasan Jahid Tushar “Bangladesh Okays ‘G2G Plus’ Deal to Send 1.5m Workers to Malaysia,” The Daily Star, February 9, 2016.

[11] “Cabinet Okays G2G Plus Scheme with Malaysia,” Dhaka Tribune, February 9, 2016.

[12] “BAIRA Urges Authorities Not to Sign Deal with Synerflux,” Financial Express, February 17, 2016; Porimal Palma, “Not a Worker to be Hired by KL,” The Daily Star, March 13, 2016.

[13] C. R. Abrar, “Malaysia's Turn-around in Labour Recruitment: Consequence of Non-transparency,” The Daily Star, February 21, 2016.

[14] Amitava Kar, “Migration Augments Development,” The Daily Star, September 24, 2015.  

[15] Syeda Rozana Rashid, Uncertain Tomorrows: Livelihoods, Capital and Risks in Labour Migration from Bangladesh (Dhaka: UPL, 2016), 127; International Organization for Migration, “The Climate Change and Migration Nexus in Bangladesh,” Dhaka Tribune, July 25, 2015.

[16] Syeda Rozana Rashid and ASM Ali Ashraf, A Scoping Study on Ensuring Transparency and Accountability in Labour Migration from Bangladesh. Unpublished Report (Dhaka: The British Council, 2016), 49.

[17] Government of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Country Report 2013: Combating Human Trafficking (Dhaka: Ministry of Home Affairs, 2014), 11.

[18] U.S. Department of State, “Bangladesh,” in Trafficking in Persons Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, 2015), 84-85, accessed April 15, 2016,

[19] Tasneem Siddiqui, “Where is the Migration Law 2013?” The Daily Star, December 2, 2014; Benjamin Etzold and Bishwajit Mallick, “Migration Policies,” German Federal Agency for Civic Education (B.P.B.), November 30, 2015.

[20] “Human Trafficking: A Security Concern for Bangladesh,” BIPSS Issue Brief, Issue 9 (August 2011), 5.

[21] Government of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Country Report 2013, 61-62.

[22] Rashid and Ashraf, A Scoping Study, 24.