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Zachary Brabazon - Blog 4: Privilege, Mobility, and the Passport

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Zachary Brabazon - Blog 4: Privilege, Mobility, and the Passport

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This blog primarily focuses on interpersonal interactions, the kind that hammer reading points home in an emotional way.  I really value the ‘living context’ that these encounters give to all that I read about migration in Bangladesh, and this is why I chose to write what I did. For those eager to know more about the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), my good friend and colleague, Kimberly Copeland, has written an excellent post on the Forum, outlining its history and main aims.[1] I urge anyone interested to read it.

(Disclaimer: the following is a post centered around my own personal experiences and reflections. Any definitive statements are only worded as such because they save space, and may thus be treated as entirely anecdotal and subjective)

What the readership must know before reading the Blog:

I am Zachary, and I am interning with an organization called RMMRU in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Due to the personal nature of some details in the following, the names of certain persons have been altered to respect their anonymity.

               Before beginning my internship in Bangladesh, I was prepared, by pre-departure orientation and through conversation with former interns, for the keen understanding of my own privilege that would confront me daily in my tenure here. The reality of my daily life in Dhaka has not only substantiated this advice, but indeed has proved so pervasive that I am concerned I am becoming de-sensitized to it.

               Every now and then, however, a particular conversation or interaction knocks me out of my numbed state, and I am forced (thankfully) to reconsider the power of the structures that allow me to live how I live, while simultaneously limiting access for countless others. Yesterday, I was fortunate to encounter two such scenarios.

               Just before lunch yesterday, I was chatting with a co-worker about travel. As I was discussing my post-internship travel plans, my friend asked me whether I needed a visa for any of places I wanted to visit. This, in turn, led us to bring up web pages comparing countries that Canadians and Bangladeshis, respectively, can travel to without a visa or otherwise by receiving a visa on arrival.[2] I was, of course, intellectually prepared for the enormous mobility discrepancies between the two passports. And yet, I still couldn’t help linking these realities with the stark contrast that I have experienced between Canadian and Bangladeshi attitudes toward crossing borders.

               Among my community back home, the opportunity to travel is generally considered to an economic consideration, delineated mostly by financial liquidity.  This attitude is due to the fact that Canadian passports bestow great mobility privileges upon their holders, meaning that the biggest border-related worry that most Canadians will face is a long wait in customs. Meanwhile, I have tended to forget that just being stuck in that proverbial customs line is a privilege in itself. A recent study ranked the Canadian passport as the sixth most powerful in the world (tied with Ireland and five others), according to the visa-free access (VF) or visa-on-arrival (VOA) access to 174 countries that it granted to its holders. By contrast, a person holding a Bangladeshi passport has VF or VOA access to only 39 countries.[3]

               The irony here, for me, comes when I think of how much more important it is for Bangladeshis to be able to migrate across borders than it seems to be for many Canadians. To be fair, I am incredibly thankful to have the ability to enrich my life with the experience of living and learning in another country. However, it simply doesn’t seem fair that I have the passport privileges I have when many Bangladeshis, who rely on labour migration to battle poverty, climate change, and other economic ills, would comparatively benefit so much more from such privileges (in my view). Illustrating this fundamental role of migration, a 2014 study done by my host organization, RMMRU, found that the poverty rate among Bangladeshi migrant families was 13% lower than among non-migrant families.

               A second experience drove this point home for me as I was headed home from the RMMRU office after work. Joel and I were sharing a rickshaw ride back to our apartment, and we got talking to our rickshaw-wallah, a kind man named Mahmoud.

               I am loath to admit it, but the truth is that, when I first got in Mahmoud’s rickshaw, I was more fixated on the fact that he had six fingers on one hand than any other aspect of his person. Writing this now, knowing the impact our subsequent conversation has had on me, I feel a little bit of shame at my shallowness. It’s funny how, in my experience, exchanging life details with a stranger causes their striking physical features to fade from my perception, giving way to the rarefied and complicated picture of what lies beneath. I only knew Mahmoud for fifteen minutes at the most, but the story and personality that emerged in that conversation now loom much larger in my head than any aspect of his physical appearance.

               Given our limited abilities in Bangla, our conversation was limited to basic topics – the country we hailed from, the district he came from outside of Dhaka, our names. As we talked, trading details, I was struck by how much Mahmoud’s story lined up with the theme of mobility that had been so stuck in my mind since my earlier conversation with Kamal. Mahmoud told us that he came from Pirojpur, a district in South-western Bangladesh, and that he had a wife and two children. He also described the process of circular migration that he went through regularly: seven days riding rickshaw in Dhaka, two days back home with his family in Pirojpur.

               I asked a co-worker today what they knew about Pirojpur and they responded that “nearly all of Dhaka’s hawkers and merchants come from Pirojpur.” I asked him why this was, and he explained that, at certain times during rainy season, agricultural work dissipates in this district. When this happens, my friend explained, Pirojpur residents come to Dhaka to supplement their income.  “The people of Pirojpur are industrious,” according to my co-worker, “they do not want to spend their time in [idleness].”  

               Last week, Pirojpur bore the brunt of heavy flooding. The Daily Star, a Dhaka newspaper, reported that “continuous heavy rain from Saturday night [Aug. 20] has flooded different areas in seven upazilas of the district, causing damage to fish enclosures, vegetable gardens and trees.” Massive “tidal surges” also proved destructive, according to the article.[4]

               These stories weigh upon my mind. Right now, as I write, I’m thinking of Mahmoud and his family. I’m wondering what happens if, during one of these storms, Mahmoud’s family loses their garden or their fishing equipment. Will his rickshaw earnings be enough to replace it? What if he needs more? Maybe he will be pressed to find work abroad, and, given the difficulties faced in securing formal migration, maybe he will be one of thousands of irregular migrants crossing the Bay of Bengal at great peril. And out there, the sea is not always the most dangerous player.[5] [6]

               Because of conversations like these, I am routinely reminded of how desperately the GFMD needs to get things right when it happens here in Dhaka in December. International labour migration in Bangladesh, as RMMRU’s research papers will tell you, is right now a crucial adaptive strategy for countless people.[8] And with climate-change-induced weather volatility expected to increase in intensity in the coming years, this need is only going to grow.[9]




[1] Kimberly Copeland. “The UN Global Forum on Migration and Development.” Last modified 13 July 2016. http://students.capi.uvic.ca/sites/default/files/capi_internblog_kimberlycopeland_blog2.pdf

[2] Included along with the VOA and VF categories are also countries that provide easy electronic clearance to passport holders.

[3] Oliver Smith. “Revealed: The world’s most powerful passports.” The Telegraph. Last modified 31 August 2016. Accessed: 31 August 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/lists/The-worlds-most-powerful-passports/

[4] “Rain paralyses life in 4 districts.” The Daily Star. Last modified 23 August 2016. Accessed 31 August 2016. http://www.thedailystar.net/country/rain-paralyses-life-4-dists-1273993

[5] “’Thousands’ of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants stranded at sea.” BBC. Last modified 11 May 2015. Accessed 31 August 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-32686328

[6] Lipika Pelham. “Enslaved Abroad, Oppressed at Home: Modern Slavery in Bangladesh.” The New York Times. Last modified 29 October 2014. Accessed 31 August 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/30/opinion/linka-pelham-modern-slavery-in-bangladesh.html?_r=0

[7] Siddiqui, Tasneem. “Impact of Climate Change: Migration as one of the adaptation strategies.” RMMRU Working Papers.  http://www.rmmru.org/newsite/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/workingpaper18.pdf

[8] Warming Climate to Hit Bangladesh Hard with Sea Level Rise, More Floods and Cyclones, World Bank Report Says. World Bank Press Release, 19 June 2013. Accessed 31 August 2016. http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2013/06/19/warming-climate-to-hit-bangladesh-hard-with-sea-level-rise-more-floods-and-cyclones-world-bank-report-says

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