Exploring Risky Health Behaviors Of Undocumented Bangladeshi Migrants – OpEd

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BMC Public Health, a leading journal from Springer Nature, recently published a study that explores the precarious health behaviors and vulnerabilities to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS among undocumented Bangladeshi labor migrants. Conducted by a team of researchers, Md. Salman Sohel, Md. Khaled Sifullah, Babul Hossain, Md. Fouad Hossain Sarker, Noshin Tasnim Zaman, and Md. Obaidullah, the study’s comprehensive findings call for urgent welfare strategies targeting these at-risk populations. This qualitative study provides valuable insights into the dangers faced by these migrants and outlines potential policy measures to address their unique challenges.

The Context

The core driver of Bangladesh’s economy is remittance. Thus, Migration is an integral part of Bangladesh’s socio-economic landscape, with the country being a top sender and receiver of remittances. However, a significant number of Bangladeshi migrants live overseas without proper documentation and they termed as illegal or irregular migrants, which places them in highly vulnerable situations. These undocumented migrants struggle with inadequate access to healthcare, substandard living conditions, and various forms of exploitation, significantly impacting their physical and mental well-being.

Research Methodology

The study’s authors used a qualitative phenomenological framework, interviewing 25 undocumented Bangladeshi migrants from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Malaysia, Libya, and Italy. Through semi-structured interviews and the Interpretative Phenomenological Approach (IPA), the research provided an in-depth understanding of the participants’ health behaviors, particularly focusing on their risky sexual practices and susceptibility to HIV/STIs.

Key Findings

1. Hazardous Living Conditions

Undocumented migrants often find themselves in perilous living situations in an effort to avoid detection and deportation. These individuals may opt to reside in remote or obscured areas such as jungles or deserted open spaces to escape the vigilance of law enforcement. One participant vividly described the constant fear and instability, recounting experiences of sleeping in the jungle or exposed areas to steer clear of police raids. This precarious existence not only heightens their vulnerability to environmental hazards but also exacerbates their sense of isolation and insecurity.

2. Risky Employment

Many undocumented migrants undertake jobs that are fraught with danger and often lack essential safety protocols. Due to their undocumented status, they have limited leverage to advocate for safer working conditions or proper protective gear. One respondent shared a harrowing incident involving a fatal accident at their workplace, underscoring the dire repercussions of unsafe work environments. Such conditions not only jeopardize the physical well-being of these workers but also perpetuate a cycle of exploitation and occupational hazard.

3. Mental Health Crisis

The emotional and psychological strain among undocumented migrants is significantly pronounced, with many grappling with severe mental health issues. The overarching desperation stems from chronic financial instability and profound social isolation. Several migrants reported experiencing suicidal ideation as they struggle to cope with the seemingly insurmountable challenges of their circumstances. A poignant account from a 57-year-old migrant highlighted the pervasive distress: “I cannot sleep at night or eat three meals a day, and sometimes I think it would be better to die than to continue living this difficult life.”

4. Substance Use

Tobacco usage emerges as a prevalent coping mechanism among undocumented migrants. A participant noted that smoking provided a temporary respite from his depressive symptoms. The reliance on substances, although offering momentary relief, often complicates their health further and may lead to addiction, posing additional challenges in their already precarious lives.

Risky Sexual Behaviors

1. Unprotected Sex

Engagement in unprotected sexual activities is a common occurrence among undocumented migrants, primarily driven by the prohibitive cost of condoms and the fear of apprehension while purchasing them. This behavior significantly elevates the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, creating a public health concern that warrants immediate intervention.

2. Substance Use During Sex

The intersection of substance uses and sexual activity is notably concerning, as it frequently leads to risky behaviors and amplifies the risk of HIV/STI transmission. The study revealed that the use of substances during sex impairs judgment and increases the likelihood of unsafe sexual practices, further compounding the health vulnerabilities of this population.

3. Lack of Medical Check-Ups

Undocumented migrants often avoid seeking medical assistance due to their legal vulnerabilities and the pervasive fear of deportation. This aversion to healthcare services results in untreated infections and exacerbates existing health conditions, thereby perpetuating a cycle of poor health and heightened risk for communicable diseases.

Implications for Policy and Intervention

The findings emphasize the urgent need for comprehensive and targeted measures to enhance the safety, health, and well-being of undocumented migrants. Effective strategies should encompass healthcare access, education, labor protections, and policy reforms.

1. Enhanced Healthcare Access

To bridge the gap in healthcare for undocumented migrants, establishing mobile clinics or specialized health centers is essential. These facilities should provide free or low-cost medical services tailored to the needs of this vulnerable group. Crucial services should include HIV/STI testing, counseling, and treatment, along with general healthcare and mental health support. Removing barriers to healthcare access is a critical step towards reducing the health disparities faced by undocumented migrants.

2. Health Education Campaigns

Educational initiatives aimed at raising awareness about the dangers of unprotected sex, substance abuse, and the importance of regular medical check-ups are vital. These campaigns should utilize culturally sensitive and easily accessible mediums to reach the migrant population effectively. By informing and empowering migrants, such measures can promote safer practices and encourage proactive health management.

3. Stronger Labor Protections

To mitigate the exploitation and hazardous conditions faced by undocumented workers, enforcing stringent labor laws is imperative. Policies should mandate safe working environments, fair wages, and protection against workplace exploitation. Ensuring that all workers, irrespective of legal status, are safeguarded by labor protections can significantly improve their safety and quality of life.

4. Policy and Research Development

Addressing the root causes of irregular migration requires a comprehensive understanding and systemic response. Further research into the socioeconomic drivers of migration can inform more effective policy frameworks. Additionally, simplifying bureaucratic processes and creating more accessible legal migration pathways can help reduce the prevalence of undocumented migration and its associated risks.


Published in BMC Public Health, this study provides crucial insights into the precarious health conditions and risky behaviors of undocumented Bangladeshi migrants. The detailed findings offer a roadmap for health professionals, policymakers, and NGOs to develop effective strategies to safeguard these vulnerable populations. By addressing these challenges, stakeholders can work towards creating safer environments and improving the health outcomes for undocumented migrants.

About the authors: 

  • Md. Obaidullah is a Lecturer, Department of Development Studies, Daffodil International University, Dhaka
  • Md. Salman Sohel is a Lecturer, Department of Development Studies,Daffodil International University, Dhaka

Md. Obaidullah

Md. Obaidullah is Lecturer (Bangladesh Studies), Dept. Of CSE, Daffodil International University, Dhaka. He can be reached at [email protected].

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