Health

Migrants mired in misery at Dhaka airport. They fight hunger, exhaustion for hours

He arrived in Dhaka from Chattogram early on Jan 5 ahead of his flight the day after.

But for a man of limited means like Forkan, the wait proves to be as uncomfortable as it is costly.

With nowhere to go, workers bound for Middle Eastern countries, especially the United Arab Emirates, are forced to spend five to 10 hours in the vicinity of the airport before their flights.

To keep the hunger pangs at bay, they usually grab a bite at one of the many restaurants near the airport.

Weary from spending hours under the open sky, they then embark on an energy-sapping journey, risking their health in the process.

Recently, hundreds of migrants reportedly fell sick upon reaching Doha and Dubai. The embassies of Qatar and Dubai said they suffered from stomach ailments, having eaten at the restaurants near the Dhaka airport before their flights.

On Thursday, the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution conducted mobile court drives in the airport area and slapped five restaurants with fines totalling Tk 375,000.

On top of that, mandatory COVID tests within six hours before trips, as required by the UAE, are compounding the woes of the migrant workers.

A COVID test laboratory has been set up on the bottom floor of the airport’s parking lot. Hundreds of people flood the lab every day to get negative test certificates, eight to 10 hours before their flights.

Forkan was chomping on a vegetable roll on the second floor of the parking area. He was decked out in warm clothes under the sun as sweat dripped down his cheeks.

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Arriving at the airport around 5 am on a night coach, Forkan said he rented a room at a hotel in Ashkona and spent Tk 2,000 for a six-hour stay.

But the noise from trains leaving the nearby station and the crowds outside kept him from getting any sleep.

After having his breakfast there, Forkan had his sample taken for the COVID test at the airport at 12pm. He then had lunch at a restaurant near the airport roundabout.

But within two and a half hours, he was hungry again and this time, he bought a roll from the RT-PCR lab’s food store.

Each bottle of water cost him Tk 15 and every visit to the toilet Tk 10.

The air-cooled lab has several hundred seats for passengers waiting for reports, but no one is allowed to enter with their luggage. So those who travel alone typically wait outside to attend to their bags.

But Forkan wasn’t the only one having a hard time at the airport.

Cumilla-native Abdul Halim was having his lunch in the parking lot around 2:45 pm.

“I left Cumilla at 6 am and have had nothing to eat since then. So I’m having this oily chicken pulao to satiate the hunger. My flight is scheduled for 9:45 pm. I don’t know if I’ll eat anything before then.”

On the walkway of the main terminal, four Saudi Arabia-bound women were seen eating biriyani in the afternoon for similar reasons.

EATING IN THE STINK

Many passengers and their relatives relieve themselves in the gaps between parked cars on the second floor, despite being aware of the toilet below.

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Noakhali’s Golap Mia, who accompanied his brother to the airport, said, “There’s no way to go to the toilet once you enter the parking lot. Police do not allow people who go to the toilet to come upstairs.”

“The men can get their business done here, but for women, it’s an issue. The wait is long but there’s no toilet here.”

Narayanganj’s Liton Majumder was having his lunch amid the putrid smell. “Food does not stay fresh for long, so I asked my wife to chill it in the refrigerator. Maybe the food did not rot away because of that. After this, I’ll have something on the flight at night.”

Liton has been working in the Middle East for 15 years. “Do you see the filth all around? It’s worse than Kamalapur Railway Station here.

“We never get any respect here, even though expatriates are spoken of with so much reverence.”

The airport’s Executive Director Group Captain AHM Touhid-ul Ahsan said regular hygiene inspections are made at food stores inside the airport.

“The passengers arrive from far away. Sometimes they bring their own food as it is pricier in the airport area. But the food [they bring along] might go sour after eight hours or a day.”

“We inspect the food stores inside the airport regularly. There is a different branch of sanitary inspectors. The four stores inside the RT-PCR lab are also under supervision.”

“These eateries never sell food items that have expired and gone bad.”

Nevertheless, one of the five restaurants penalised by the BSTI operates inside the airport.

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CALLS TO UTILISE HAJJ CAMP

Shariful Hasan, programme head of BRAC Migration, suggested using Ashkona’s Hajj Camp as a waiting space for travellers to avert these crises.

“The Ashkona Hajj Camp located across from the airport is now empty. Letting the outbound passengers stay there for some time will benefit everyone.”

“It is a government establishment, so there will be no additional expenses. It is also very close to the airport. The site can accommodate many people at once while the toilets are good as well.”

If arrangements can be made to sell food at reasonable prices there, it will reduce the odds of outbound workers falling sick, according to him.

Shariful also called for the water supply at Ashkona to be tested.

“Our observations showed many people fell ill after drinking the water. The supply line could have issues. It is necessary to test the water quality and take swift steps to resolve it.”

[Written in English by Syed Mahmud Onindo, edited by Turaj Ahmad]

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