BEIRUT: There is more to Bangladesh than its migrant worker community, its newly appointed Ambassador AFM Gousal Azam Sarker said.
Altering that stereotype of Bangladeshis is part of Sarker’s diplomatic vision, as is developing stronger bilateral relations to open the door for investors.
“ Bangladesh is not limited to the Bangladeshi workers present here, Bangladesh is much more than that,” Sarker said in an interview with The Daily Star at his diplomatic mission in Bir Hasan. “It has a lot of strengths, and a lot of successes.”
Indeed, the country has come a long way since it gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, at which point it was exceptional only for its devastating poverty rate affecting about 60 percent of the population, exacerbated further by endemic corruption and nepotism among the ruling elite.
In the past two decades, however, the country has maintained a GDP growth rate of 2 percent a year, reduced its poverty rate by 30 percent, nearly achieved gender equality in education according to Millennium Development Goal standards, and, if current trends persist, will advance as a middle-income country in the next few years.
For Sarker, the achievements of the nation, which with about 150 million boasts the highest population density on the planet, means the possibilities to deepen ties with Lebanon are endless. But first, he has to do away with outmoded image of Bangladesh as a famine-ridden, catastrophic flood-prone country vulnerable to military coups – occurring on three separate occasions in its history. But its economy has proven resilient, Sarker says, as has its political system.
The Bangladeshi Embassy in Lebanon was established last July, to account for the swelling presence of its citizens in the country. There are about 60,000 Bangladeshis residing in Lebanon, with most employed as migrant workers. Previously, a consulate branch operated in Bir Hasan, while visa and passports were issued from the Bangladeshi Embassy in Jordan. The establishment of an embassy in Lebanon is yet another sign that ties between the two countries are gaining strength, according to Sarker.
Relations between Lebanon and Bangladesh are not restricted to the presence of workers, though this is the focal point of bilateral bonds.
“They give substance to bilateral relations between the two countries and based on that a lot can be done, and a lot can be built. This people-to-people linkage helps strengthen ties and cooperation in other areas as well,” said Sarker, whose previous ambassador post was in Sweden.
“Though trade and commerce [between Lebanon and Bangladesh] is not at the optimal level, the good thing is it’s increasing steadily,” Sarker said.
“In terms of investment, although we do not have Lebanese investment in Bangladesh, we hope that Lebanese investors see the opportunities in Bangladesh,” Sarker said, adding that such opportunities ranged from garment and textiles to natural resources and technology.
“To strengthen our bilateral relations, we are working in the international arena, in multilateral forums, and the visible result of this is Bangladesh’s participation in UNIFIL,” he said. Bangladesh has two naval ships and a contingent in the peacekeeping force.
Most Bangladeshis in Lebanon reside in the country’s urban centers.
Sarker says there are two categories of workers, separated according to gender. Males are typically employed in shops, restaurants, hotels, gas stations or cleaning companies. Female workers are usually employed as domestic workers.
“Generally we find them OK,” he said, “but sometimes there are cases of mistreatment, some are overworked, and we come across problems and difficulties that we have to deal with the Lebanese authorities.”
Rights groups have long advocated for the rights of migrant workers in Lebanon and criticized the lack of legal recourse available to them, especially when the victims of abuse at the hands of employers.
Many activists say the sponsorship system through which workers are brought to Lebanon renders them vulnerable to exploitation.
“We don’t deny that the recruitment stage has difficulties and problems, so a better recruitment arrangement system would definitely improve the situation, but it is not the only area where problems are. They exist in different stages, from selection, to their reception here by agencies,” Sarker said. “In different stages, problems exist.”
The symbolic beginning of Sarker’s mission to change Lebanon’s impression of Bangladesh will begin on March 26, at an event commemorating the country’s independence.
“It’s the most significant day of our national life, it’s very important to us, and it is especially important here because this is the first celebration we are holding in Lebanon [as a full-fledged embassy],” he said of the event that he hopes will draw many Lebanese.
“We are expecting them to come and take a glimpse of our culture, and we hope that with this our community [in Lebanon] will also take more initiatives from time to time to familiarize the Lebanese with Bangladeshi traditions.”