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The European Union (EU) has threatened to impose visa restrictions unless Bangladesh rapidly takes back its illegal migrants. After trying in vain for about a year and a half to persuade the Bangladesh government to take action in this regard, the EU has finally resorted to this tactic.

Taking the issue of visa restrictions into special consideration, the Bangladesh government will be finalizing the Standard Operating Procedure (SoP) with EU in September this year, according to officials of the foreign ministry and the EU embassy in Bangladesh.

However, neither side could provide a clear idea about the number of illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Europe. According to EU, this number will be around 80 thousand. On the other hand, Bangladesh says this is just an approximation. Previously the European Commission statistics office Eurostat had said that from 2008 to 2015, a total of 93,435 Bangladeshis had illegally entered Europe.

According to statistics of Italy’s home ministry, 8436 Bangladeshis crossed the Mediterranean Sea to arrive in Italy from 1 January to 19 July this year. And 8131 such illegal migrants entered Italy in 2016. In 2015 there was only one single illegal migrant. The Italian authorities have informed Bangladesh that these migrants caught along the coast had crossed the Mediterranean from Libya, to arrive at Italy. According to the International Organisation for Migrations (IOM), Bangladesh nationals top the list of persons crossing the Mediterranean to go to Europe.

In ‘Desperate Journeys’, a report of the UN refugee agency UNHCR published last February, it was stated that Bangladesh topped the list of 10 countries from where persons were crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe. And there were 72 children among the 8131 Bangladeshis who crossed the Mediterranean this year.

Officials of the foreign ministry have said that according to information from various countries in Europe, 17,215 Bangladeshi applied for political asylum abroad till December 2016. The applications of 11,715 have been rejected. From January 2015 to March 2017, a total of 4500 Bangladesh were given clearance to return after being declared illegal in Europe. Of them, 3300 were given the clearance in the UK alone.

Without giving any specific number, the European union of 28 countries has, over the past year and a half, been pointing to the high number of Bangladeshi nationals staying in Europe. According to a few officials of the foreign ministry, human traffickers have taken advantage of the Syrian refugee crisis over the past few years and are smuggling people from various countries by dinghies over the Mediterranean to Europe. Europe is concerned at the significant increase in Bangladeshis among these trafficked persons.

However, speaking to certain diplomats with experience of working in Brussels over the past five years, it was learnt that the EU had been urging that illegal Bangladeshis be taken back even before the Syrian refugee crisis broke out. And when East European countries joined the EEU, political pressure mounted to employ persons of the member states. And so it has been from beforehand that the demand was made for illegal migrants, including Bangladeshis, to be taken back.

In June this year, the EEU had given Bangladesh a draft SoP for taking back illegal Bangladeshi migrants. After the home ministry held several discussions with various ministries and agencies, it finalised the draft on Bangladesh’s position in June, and on 12 July it presented it views at the joint commission meeting in Brussels. No joint statement was finally issued due to differences of opinion.

A day after the joint commission meeting, the EU in an announcement said that it would keep up pressure on Bangladesh to finalise by July the SOP regarding taking illegal Bangladeshis back. The EEU then imposed certain new prohibitions and sent the amended SOP to Bangladesh.

On 25 July an inter-ministerial meeting was held regarding taking back illegal Bangladeshis from Europe. After the meeting, foreign secretary Mohammed Shahidul Huq sent a letter inviting Europe’s external action services deputy secretary general Christian Leffler to visit Dhaka soon.

EEU has been expressing is dissatisfaction with the Bangladesh government regarding the issue of taking illegal Bangladeshis back. The EU ambassador in Bangladesh Pierre Mayaudon spoke to Prothom Alo at his office yesterday afternoon. Referring to Bangladesh’s response to the SoP at the joint commission meeting in Brussels, he said, “We have received for the first time a counter proposal from Bangladesh. I think that is encouraging that there is a response from Bangladesh as talks in this regard have been on since April.”

He sent on to say, “But very likely we are going to witness now an acceleration of the process because it took one year to get the counter proposal. It will not take another year to sign the SoP. We are now very close to the satisfactory conclusion. And hopefully if not coming days, in coming weeks we would see certain progress on that count.”

When asked if any senior EU official will visit will visit Dhaka in August to discuss the issue, the EU ambassador said, “We have no date till now, but logic says that the next round of discussion should take place can be Dhaka. A decision making delegation is coming to Dhaka most probably very near future.”

Regarding the number of illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Europe, Pierre Mayaudon said, “Frankly speaking, we have no specific number, but the numbers presented by the Italian home ministry regarding illegal Bangladeshis, are a matter of concern. The number of illegal migrants from Bangladesh in the first six months of this year is much higher than the number in 2016. The people are crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to go to Italy, not to Portugal or Denmark. So we should give importance to the numbers in Italy.”

Concerning Bangladesh’s stand about taking illegal migrants back from Europe, Mohammed Shahidul Huq yesterday told Prothom Alo in this office, “Bangladesh has already placed a proposal for an organized and regulated migration system worldwide. Bangladesh is committed to upholding the legal migration process. An so very soon talks will be held with senior EEU officials regarding the return process of Bangladeshis staying illegally in Europe. These talks may be held within the next few weeks.”

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