By Kokila Annamalai
I’ve just finished my cup of barley and kaya toast. I call him thrice in a row. He picks up the last time.
“Hello, have you arrived?”
“Yes, I just reached Terminal 2.”
“Which counter are you at?”
“Great, could you wait right outside the counter for me? What colour shirt are you wearing?”
“White shirt. My brother is at the check-in counter. He’s in a red shirt.”
“Ok, I’m walking there now.”
I spot him, hovering anxiously by the row of chairs in the waiting area. His brother, Badsha, is being repatriated today. He’s set to fly home to Bangladesh on the 7.45pm Tigerair flight. He only found out a couple of hours ago. Earlier that day, Badsha was at work when his manager instructed him to report to the company office. A man met him there and asked him to sign some papers without telling him what was on them. When he hesitated, the man got aggressive, insisting he sign. Confused, Badsha signed, and the next thing he knew, his belongings were being collected, his passport seized, and he was on the way to the airport with the man. The man was now standing in line with him at the check-in counter. He looked fierce, uncompromising. He was from the repatriation company, there to make sure Badsha returned today. My job was to stop him. Badsha’s brother tried to manage a smile as he shook my hand. “You go now, please help him.”
I marched up to the counter, weaving my way through the waiting passengers to Badsha, my stride a lot more confident than I felt.
“Hi, I’m from HOME. Are you Badsha?”
“Does your employer owe you any money?”
“Yes. He cut my salary every month, never pay me fully. On my pay slip, it’s one amount. What I get in hand is another amount. I paid $3000 to be recruited by his company. He also took another $5000 from me, saying he will recruit my brother from back home. But he didn’t. When I asked him back for the money, he want to send me home. I joined the company in January, and he already wants to send me back. They’ve done this to many workers before. Recruit, send back. Recruit, send back. Because for each new recruitment, they make money.”
“Do you want to leave on this flight or come with me?”
“I don’t want to go back.”
“Ok, then come, let’s go.”
I turn to the man from the repatriation company. He is from UTR services, a company which “specialises” in the repatriation of migrant workers.
“Hi, I’m from HOME. This man doesn’t want to go home. I’m taking him with me.”
He flares up, immediately hostile and threatening.
“Doesn’t want to go back means what?? I cannot just handover my man! What evidence do you have that you’re from NGO? How do I know? I must send him back.”
I call Jolovan from HOME to ask what I should do. I haven’t had much experience, and it’s the first time I’ve been confronted by staff from a repatriation company.
Jolovan is as light and cheeky as ever, and yet, comforting. He’s concerned about how comfortable I am dealing with this situation.
“Don’t care what he says. You can just go. He might call the police and it could get ugly, will you be OK with that?”
I notice the man is holding on to Badsha’s passport. He’s on the phone with his boss now, complaining about me.
“He has Badsha’s passport. Should I ask him for it, or just leave?”
Jolovan tells me he’s tried fighting for passports before, but it can be tough. These guys are usually unrelenting. He says not to worry, we can leave without the passport if he refuses to give it.
The man is off the phone now, but still very angry. “I won’t let him go. You have to write a letter saying you are taking him and that you’re responsible for everything to do with him from this moment.”
Jolovan tells me I don’t have to sign anything. We can just walk away.
I try asking for Badsha’s passport, but my efforts are in vain. The man refuses, and dials the police. I tell Badsha it’s time to go. We start pushing the trolley with his luggage on it, and the man loses it. He physically restrains us, stops the trolley with his foot and shoves Badsha, grabbing his shoulder to hold him back, all this while trying to talk to the police on the phone. We keep trying to push past him, but he’s making a huge scene by this time. He’s shouting, telling us we can’t leave, and he’ll make sure the police take us to task. Badsha and I look at each other. He grabs his bags off the trolley, I hold his arm and we start walking away as quick as we can, not looking back.
The man follows us, yelling. He’s taking pictures of us with his phone and making threats. The commotion has caught the attention of quite a few other people now.
“You just watch out! I have your pictures! The police will come after you!”
We rush to the escalator and go down to the arrival hall, making out way to the taxi queue.
“Are you OK? Are you scared?” I ask Badsha.
“No. What can he do to me?” Badsha asks.
“He’s telling the police. But if they come to arrest you, call the HOME hotline. We’ll intervene.”
I take him to his friend’s place, where he says he can stay till Monday, when the MOM office will open and HOME can assist him in trying to pursue a just outcome. But by the time we reach the lodging, he’s changed his mind. He says his boss knows the location and might send the police after him there. He thinks of another place that’s safer. He drops his bags at the first place, and we board the train together. Along the way, he tells me how he recently had a bad fall while driving a vehicle at work, and sustained a bad back injury.
“It still hurts a lot. I told my boss. He said no need to go to the doctor. He will give me some balm. But he didn’t. I think this is also why he wants to send me back. Because I’m injured, and because he doesn’t want to give me my money back.”
His stop is here.
“HOME will go with you to MOM first thing in the morning on Monday. Till then, take care and call me if you need anything.”
We smile and pat each other on the back. He exits. His stride is confident.
Read more about repatriation companies here