Rome, Italy – “Tourists in groups never buy anything.” Ignoring the large group of American tourists sauntering back towards his stall, Faisal pulls out a photo of a boy from his wallet. “This is Sifat, my son. I send him to an English school and he’s at the top of his class,” the 30-year-old migrant from Bangladesh and a school dropout said.
At 3pm the autumn sun in Rome is still harsh and the crowds near the Trevi fountain are thinner than usual. Walking past his stall, a few stragglers in the American group slow down to look at Faisal’s shining “Chanel” and “Prada” handbags arranged in neat rows on the ground, then shuffle on hurriedly.
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“They don’t like getting separated from the group. The best time to approach them is when they are alone and have time to negotiate,” Faisal volunteers his business strategy.
A few yards away, his partner Rafiq, another migrant, is furtively scouring their surroundings for signs of plainclothed policemen. Every few minutes the two men exchange uneasy glances. They haven’t sold a single bag today.
“Sales are down for the last three-four months and at times it feels very desperate. But we have no choice. Who is going to feed our families back home?” said Rafiq, shifting his gaze towards three men standing near an expensive restaurant not far from him. Their hardened faces and sunken eyes scanned the busy tables impassively as they stood beside their worn tarpaulin sheets on the ground, laden with tourist souvenirs and cheap leather goods.
Like Rafiq and Faisal they are from Bangladesh too, and entered Italy on forged documents.
Growing migrant population
Oddly, it is a familiar sight across Rome. A quick visual audit of the city and nearly every other roadside vendor, souvenir seller, shop worker and restaurant waiter appears to be of Bangladeshi origin.
The striking ubiquitousness of these South Asian men, however, is no coincidence but arguably the face of another migrant crisis than the one Italy is battling on its shores.
|With 122,000 residents, Italy has the second largest Bangladeshi community in Europe after Britain [Nishtha Chugh/ Al Jazeera]|
The Mediterranean nation is now home to a growing number of Bangladeshi migrants, many of whom have been smuggled or trafficked into the country.
According to the Italian Bureau of Statistics (ISTAT), in 2009, 11,000 Bangladeshi migrants were living in the country on unverified documents. New estimates released since then by various independent sources suggest their number could now be as high as 70,000. With 122,000 residents, Italy has the second largest Bangladeshi community in Europe after Britain.
“In scale it may not seem comparable with the crisis involving migrants from North Africa making a perilous attempt to reach Italy in overcrowded boats. But due to fewer economic opportunities at home, many Bangladeshis are resorting to equally desperate measures and facing similar levels of risk in the hope of a better life in Europe,” said Dr Md Mizanur Rahman, senior research fellow in migration studies at National University of Singapore.
Poverty and high unemployment have made migration an integral part of Bangladeshi society and culture, Rahman said. “Male members are now invariably expected to migrate to cities or overseas to uplift the family financially,” he said.
It took Faisal 11 months and 1,600,000 Bangladeshi takas ($20,535) to reach Rome from Dubai, where he and his father were employed as construction workers. By air, the two cities are six hours apart and a one-way ticket costs about $400.
In 2011, things took a turn for the worse when his father lost use of his hands in an accident months before Faisal’s visa was due for renewal. The responsibility for providing for his elderly parents, four sisters, wife and two children now rested on him.
“Poor men have poorer luck, you see,” Faisal tries to force a smile. “I didn’t get my [visa] extension and going home was not an option. I had too many mouths to feed.”
After his family back home made a flurry of arrangements with adam byaparis – Bengali for “human merchants” – in exchange for one million takas ($12,780), raised from selling family land and loans from moneylenders, Faisal was then set off on a boat from Dubai with nearly 20 men, headed for Europe.
“The overland expedition through Oman, Iran, and Turkey was fraught with risks and exacted a heavy toll on the men, both physically and mentally,” he told Al Jazeera.
They covered long distances in overcrowded jeeps or on foot for days, often after dark. Every few hundred kilometres, the group – which once swelled to 200 men – was handed down to local smugglers, who routinely banded them with other groups that also included girls before arranging crossings across borders.
“They [smugglers] never stopped for anything except when hiding us in safe-houses. Two men died due to exhaustion but their bodies were abandoned by the roadside. No prayers were said for the Muslim brothers, let alone give them a decent burial,” Faisal said.
‘Slash our throats’
After reaching Istanbul, the migrant from Noakhali district in southern Bangladesh found himself in the hands of a gang who subjected him to beatings, starvation, and blackmail for days.
“This is how they would tie electric wires into knots on one end,” Faisal wraps a thin strap from a fake Chanel bag around his knuckles, “and whip us”.
|Migrant workers in Italy preferred to locals|
“They demanded another million [takas] for the journey forward or they would ‘slash our throats and throw us in the Bosphorus, [the strait that divides Europe and Asia]’,” he said.
After his family paid 400,000 takas ($5,180), borrowed from relatives, to local handlers, Faisal was dropped off in Greece, where he spent another seven months in hiding and waiting for his travel documents. Three failed attempts later, he eventually succeeded in boarding a flight to Rome with a fake agriculture worker visa.
“In recent years a lot of men have gone to Sicily and Venice. They are now crossing on boats from Libya,” said Rafiq, who arrived in Italy in 2008 on a six-month agriculture visa. “Overland routes have become more dangerous and expensive,” he adds.
According to Rahman, Italy has become a highly desirable destination for Bangladeshi immigrants due to its lax entry controls and mass drives to legalise migrants. Since 1986, its government has absorbed over a million immigrants under its quota system.
“That Italy is now attracting university-educated, urban Bangladeshi youth says a lot about its appeal,” he told Al Jazeera.
As per Bangladesh’s central bank, migrants have remitted nearly $1bn from Italy between 2000 and 2010.
For Rafiq and Faisal, however, sending money home is no less than “selling blood and dignity”.
You work 16-17 hours a day, take abuse, submit to exploitation and say nothing
“You work 16-17 hours a day, take abuse, submit to exploitation and say nothing,” Rafiq said. In his first job, the 28-year-old migrant from Dhaka picked fruit on a farm for 2 euros ($2.50) an hour.
“I toiled for a local shoe manufacturer from 4am to 5pm. He paid me 23 euros [$28.77] per day,” Faisal said.
Last year both men decided to start their own “business” after meeting in a three-bedroom flat, which they shared with 18 other migrants.
They now make roughly 1600-1700 euros ($2,001-$2,126) a month, slightly more than their previous earnings. At 450 euros ($562) per person, food and rent are still their biggest expenses. The remainder is wired home.
While Rafiq is happy that “no one is sucking their blood”, Faisal would like to see bigger savings at the end of the month.
“I would like to send Sifat a smartphone but it’s hard to slash expenses any further,” Faisal said.
“I am sure I will find a way,” he said.
Follow Nishtha Chugh on Twitter: @NishChugh