'Seeing how things are going, I am afraid that I will not get a ticket in time and it may cost me my job'
Bangladeshi migrant workers are growing increasingly anxious over whether they will be able to return to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia due to a lack of air tickets. Furthermore, visas and work permits (Akama) of many of the migrant workers are set to expire this month, adding to their desperation.
Tensions boiled over on Tuesday when many of the ticket-seekers blocked the Karwan Bazar intersection at around 9:30am, causing severe traffic congestion on nearby roads for about an hour.
Earlier on Sunday, hundreds of migrant workers flocked to the Saudi Arabian Airlines office at Hotel Pan Pacific Sonargaon. The airline handed out tokens to the migrants in order for discipline to be maintained.
However, when the migrants returned to the office with their tokens on Tuesday, they were told that tickets had already been sold out and the office was closed. Frustrated at having been denied tickets after the wait, with some of the migrant workers even sleeping in front of the office from Sunday, hundreds of them blockaded nearby roads.
Hatirjheel police station Officer-in-Charge (OC) Abdur Rashid said several law enforcement officials had been deployed in the area to maintain law and order and restore normal conditions.
Who got the tickets?
Md Shah Alam, one of the migrant workers who was at the demonstration, told Dhaka Tribune he returned to Bangladesh from Saudi Arabia in November last year and became stranded due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Recently, the authorities of his company asked him to rejoin his workplace by September 30.
"I came to Bangladesh with a return ticket. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the flights were suspended. Now, the airline is supposed to renew my ticket after charging some extra money. Like me, hundreds of workers have been waiting for tickets,” Md Shah Alam said.
“Seeing how things are going, I am afraid that I will not get a ticket in time and it may cost me my job,” he added.
Billal Hossain, another protesting migrant worker, said the Saudi Arabian Airlines office had given him a token numbered 137.
“I had heard that there were about a thousand seats available on two chartered flights. As an early token holder, I thought I would get a ticket at the beginning. How were all one thousand tickets sold without me getting one? How is this possible?” he added.
The migrant workers believe the tickets were sold to other people at exorbitant prices by travel agencies, putting the livelihoods of the migrant workers in jeopardy.
‘We will let Saudi Arabia operate as many flights as they want’
Air Vice Marshal M Mofidur Rahman, chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB), said: “We have instructed the intelligence agencies to get information about those who are selling tickets at excessive prices.
“To address the lack of tickets issue, we will allow Saudi Arabian Airlines to operate as many flights as they want. At the same time, in the interest of the migrant workers, we are speaking with the Bangladesh Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dr Javed Patwary, on finding a solution to the problem,” the CAAB chairman added.
On Monday, Biman Bangladesh Airlines said Saudi Arabia had finally given the green light to operate flights to and from the country from October 1.
However, Biman also said landing permission was required before beginning seat allocation, but Saudi Arabia is yet to provide it. As a result, the schedule for the flights cannot be announced right now.
The flight schedule would be announced as soon as landing permission is received and all concerned, including passengers, would be informed, the statement said.
Ticket seekers were advised not to crowd unnecessarily at the counter before the flights were announced, it added.
In March, Saudi Arabia suspended international flights to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
On September 15, it announced that it would partially lift its suspension on international flights to allow "exceptional categories" of citizens and residents to travel.