Salim Sheikh says he watched in fear as Sunni militants executed an Iraqi in June who they accused of being a U.S. spy, hacking off his limbs with swords and cheering as he bled to death.
Pointing their guns at Sheikh, a Bangladeshi migrant worker captured along with 76 others in the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit, the men told him to clean up the blood. Sheikh, a Sunni, says his captors paid him $100 for the work, a sum he accepted at gunpoint. Days later, he was allowed to return home.
Now Sheikh wants to return to Iraq, even as Islamic State extremists battle for territory in a conflict that has brought U.S. airstrikes back to the country and displaced or killed tens of thousands of people. Sheikh says it’s still easier to find a job in Iraq, where per capita gross domestic product is about seven times higher than his home nation.
“I know many places in Iraq and I can speak fluent Arabic,” Sheikh, 34, said in an interview. “I have some friends there. I am sure I will get a job.”
Bangladesh’s $130 billion economy is dependent on money that overseas workers like Sheikh send home to support their families. In July that amounted to a record $1.5 billion, more than half of which came from the Middle East, according to central bank data.
For workers like Sheikh, the attraction of the oil-rich region is compelling. He arrived in Iraq in December 2009 to look for work after paying a local agent 240,000 taka ($3,100) to get a visa.
He found a job at a bread factory in the Al-Hurriya neighborhood of Baghdad, then a supermarket, and cleaned cars for extra cash. After 14 months, an Iraqi offered him a better job in Tikrit. At one point Sheikh said he was making $700 per month -- about what the average Bangladeshi makes in a year, according to World Bank data.
All that changed on the afternoon of June 10. Sheikh was working as a cleaner in a government building and came out to get a cup of tea from a kerbside food stall. As he drank the tea, he noticed the street was almost empty.
“I asked the tea vendor why the place was so quiet. He said, ‘It’s probably the last day I will be able to sell tea.’”
Sheikh ran back into the government offices. Armed militants were waiting for him. They tested Sheikh’s ability to cite Koranic verses in the Sunni style to prove he was from the same faith.
“That was a temporary relief -- that I wouldn’t be killed right away,” Sheikh said.
He spent 24 days in captivity with 30 Bangladeshis before they were taken to a hospital building where 46 Indian nurses were held. All of them were released to Indian government representatives in Iraq on July 4.
Along with his compatriots, Sheikh was taken to Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, for the flight home. At the airport, some of the Bangladeshis escaped so they could stay and look for work, Sheikh said. Only 15 returned with air tickets purchased by the government in Dhaka.
Awaiting them was a country that last captured global attention in April 2013, when the eight-story Rana Plaza in Dhaka collapsed, killing 1,135 people and highlighting the overcrowded conditions in the workshops of the world’s second-largest garment industry.
Despite a decade of improving living standards fueled by economic growth and money from overseas workers, about 47 million Bangladeshis still live in poverty and 26 million of those in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank. Seven out of 10 people live in rural areas, where farmers face regular threats from flooding and cyclones to produce crops such as rice, wheat and jute.
Young Bangladeshis looking to escape village life often head to the capital. Dhaka and its surrounding areas are home to almost one-third of the nation’s poor, who live on less than $1.25 a day each.
At the last count in 2010, 32 percent of the population lived below the poverty line, down from 49 percent in 2000, according to the statistics agency.
That reduction has been helped by remittances. For those who can raise the money to pay an agent for a visa, which typically requires a sponsoring company in the host country, the potential rewards are huge. Unskilled migrant workers earn as much as $250 a month in the United Arab Emirates, compared with the official minimum wage of $68 for a garment worker in Dhaka, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“It’s not that they don’t have work in villages,” said Khondaker Golam Moazzem, a research director at the Dhaka-based Centre for Policy Dialogue. “It’s the wage difference that drives them to cities and, for those who can afford it, to foreign countries.”
About 8.6 million Bangladeshis work abroad, injecting more than $14 billion a year into their home economy. More than half of them have been overseas for at least 5 years, according to a survey last year by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. Nine out of 10 are menial workers in Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Malaysia, Oman, Kuwait, South Korea or Singapore. Most have no formal training.
“Migration continues to be a rewarding transition to higher income for the migrants and their families,” said Zahid Hussain, a World Bank economist based in Dhaka.
Even without the armed conflict that has reignited in the heart of the Middle East, life for those who go abroad is still often brutal, with many living in crowded and basic accommodation and working long hours in conditions that are often unsafe.
In the six years through 2013, at least 13,827 Bangladeshi workers died abroad, mainly from stroke, heart-related ailments, workplace and road accidents or murder, according to a report by the Dhaka-based Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit. The bodies of 1,300 workers have been sent back to Bangladesh this year from five countries, it said.
A clampdown by Persian Gulf states on the number of visas granted to migrant workers has made it harder for Bangladeshi workers to get jobs, according to Moody’s Investors Service.
Last year, 409,253 Bangladeshis went abroad for work, 33 percent less than a year ago, according to the RMMRU report. Iraq accounted for 1.6 percent of the migrants.
Bangladesh’s legion of overseas workers remains key to the country’s progress. Remittances in July surged 21 percent from a year earlier, prompting Moody’s to raise its growth forecast for this fiscal year to 6 percent from 5.8 percent.
“The rebound in remittance inflows helps consumption and will enable Bangladesh to maintain its relatively strong economic growth performance this year,” Anushka Shah, an analyst at Moody’s, said in an e-mail.
Meanwhile, Sheikh remains at his home in Gopalganj, a district in central Bangladesh, waiting for the situation in Iraq to stabilize so he can head back to one of the safer cities such as Baghdad, or those further south like Najaf or Basra.
“I’m sitting at home doing nothing,” said Sheikh, who has two brothers still working in Iraq. “My relatives suggested I start a small business here, but I don’t listen to them. I will go back someday and start all over again.”