Migration from Bangladesh: Causes and Challenges

Migration and emigration from Bangladesh is a regular phenomenon. Historically, large scale migration from the region constituting present-day Bangladesh started after the tea plantation was introduced in Assam by the British rulers in the early nineteenth century. Large numbers of coolies (porters) were needed for the tea gardens. To fulfil that demand the Assam Company began to import labourers from Bengal (especially from its eastern part) in 1853. In contemporary times, the first batch of emigrants from Bangladesh were the ‘refugees’ seeking shelter in a foreign country, after atrocities started by the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan in 1971. This phenomenon did not stop even after the East Pakistan was liberated and Bangladesh was formed in 1971. Instead, since then many Bangladeshis have been migrating to Europe, West Asia, India, and East Asia. Migration has its impact on the demographic composition of the host countries. For example in some cities of Italy, like Lazio, Lombardy, and Veneto, the migrants from Bangladesh comprise a significant number of the population. In developed countries most of these migrants are engaged in service sector jobs like souvenir selling, or being a vendor, shop worker, restaurant waiter, or domestic maid.

Causes for large scale Migration from Bangladesh

Although its economy is stable, maintaining between 5-6 percent Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth for the last two decades, it is not viable enough to occupy all skilled, semi-skilled, and non-skilled workers in the country. Statistically, only 26 percent of its population lives below the national poverty line of US$ 2 per day, but a substantive percentage remains unemployed or underemployed. To evade poverty, unemployment, and under employment, many Bangladeshi migrate to other countries. Often, they do so even at the cost of their lives. Many times, such a desperate act has lead them to be trapped in a situation like the one happened in May 2015, when about 8,000 people consisting of Rohingyas from Myanmar and Bangladeshis were stranded at sea close to Thailand. While moving illegally, many Bangladeshis have even lost their lives. The most recent high profile case of death of Bangladeshi migrants occurred on 28 August 2015 in North Africa, where at least twenty four Bangladeshis, including two minor children, died after two boats carrying up to 500 migrants sank off the coast of Libya. The first boat, which capsized early on 27 August 2015, had nearly 100 people on board. The second, which sank later, was carrying about 400 passengers.

As 80 percent of Bangladesh’s geographic area is situated in the flood plains of Ganges, Brahmaputra, Meghna, and many other small rivers, a contributing push factor to the migration is the character of these deltaic rivers. They often change their course, forcing many inhabitants to move to new settlements. The submergence of chors (silt areas) during the flood season forces many inhabitants, deliberately or out of sheer ignorance, to migrate into India. Out of these total number of environmental migrants, only a few return after the normalisation of the situation; others look out for ways to earn their livelihood in their ‘acquired ‘or ‘adopted’ land.

Changing Gender Pattern and Consequences of Migration

Gender-wise, like other countries from the developing world, the migration-related statistics of Bangladesh too is tilted in favour of males, of which there are around three million working in different parts of the world. But in last few years there has been a constant increase in the number of female migrants, who can migrate either alone or as a spouse. As reported in the Daily Star (a well-respected English language daily in Bangladesh), according to the June 2015 statistics of Bangladesh’s Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), a total of 37,304 female workers had gone to different countries in 2012; it has increased to 76,007 in 2014. One country which stands out in terms of employment of female workers from Bangladesh is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). According to the BMET statistics, the UAE is home to 27 percent of the total female migrant workers of Bangladesh. Two basic reasons can explain this rising trend. Firstly, the demand for female workers in the UAE is higher than that of other countries. Secondly, attractive salary in the UAE draws more female migrant workers there than other countries. After the UAE, Lebanon hires a large number of female migrant workers. While the country has only 1.3 percent of total Bangladeshi migrants, it nevertheless has the second highest percentage of female migrants (24.3 percent) compared to all other countries. About 97,000 female workers reside in Lebanon.

Host countries remain hostile to the migrants. Sometimes, under pressure from political and economic constituencies, the host country (ies) restricts its visa policy for the citizens of a particular country or even denies issuing it to them altogether. The migrants are accused of ‘cultural invasion’ through demographic transition. They are also blamed for taking away job opportunities from the locals. Quite often, the migrants face violence from the locals, which is a sign of an extreme form of hatred towards them. Bangladeshi migrants have faced both situations. In 2014 Saudi Arabia stopped issuing visas for Bangladeshis even for the Umrah (a pilgrimage to Mecca performed by Muslims; it can be undertaken at any time of the year, in contrast to the Hajj). The Saudi officials claimed that in 2014 many Bangladeshis for whom Umrah visas were issued did not return to their country after performing the ritual. The Umrah visa was restored on August 5, 2015, after Bangladeshi foreign minister Md Shahriar Alam’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where a request was made to the Saudi State Minister for Foreign Affairs (Nizar bin Obaid Madani) for Umrah visas to be resumed.

Termed as ‘illegal’, the Bangladeshi migrants have faced violence in the Indian states bordering Bangladesh. The radical groups in the area have centuries-old grievances against them. They are considered to be an economic and cultural threat to the region. Many contrasting figures are being presented by these groups to justify their position; in reality, according to the United Nations data of 2013, the number of Bangladeshi in India is around 3.2 million. Migrants from Bangladesh have faced violence not only in India, but in other parts of the world too. In Thailand there have been rampant cases of exploitation of Bangladeshi women working in various sectors, including the flesh trade. In West Asian countries, the women workers are forced to work in many houses as a maid and beaten when they demand salary from their ‘masters’. In Malaysia, too, the cases of abuse of maids is on the rise. Most of these maids are from Bangladesh. In February 2015 Bangladeshi workers faced targeted violence in Rome, Italy.

Conclusions

Remittances play a crucial role in pushing the Bangladeshi economy. According to the World Bank, total remittance received by Bangladesh in 2013 was $14.5 billion, which has increased to $ 15.0 billion in 2014-15. In 2014, the remittances constituted 8.21 % of the GDP of Bangladesh. In January-March 2015 quarter Bangladesh earned $ 3771.16 million of remittance, which is 8.49 percent higher than the previous year. These remittances have helped Bangladesh’s economy maintain its 5.5- 6 percent GDP growth.

Though the migrants are important to Bangladesh’s economy, many serious ill effects of migration too have emerged. Under the guise of migration, human trafficking is taking place from Bangladesh to many parts of the world. Women and children from Bangladesh are trafficked into India, East Asia, and West Asia for commercial sexual exploitation and to serve as bondage labour. To check this activity, especially human trafficking of females, the government of Bangladesh issues licences to the recruiting agencies, which are renewed at regular intervals of time and maintained by the concerned agency. Also, in 2013 the Government of Bangladesh revised the Overseas Employment and Migration Act which includes Emigration Rules, Rules for Conduct and Licensing Recruiting Agencies, and Rules for Wage Earner’s Welfare Fund. Despite all such steps migrants are being exploited by the domestic agencies and they face umpteen challenges in the host country they end up in.

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5 thoughts on “Migration from Bangladesh: Causes and Challenges

  1. Alas I suspect that Bangladesh and many other countries will face increased migration for most of the remainder of the century. We have the consequences of global warming to face [obligatory pause for Professor Pinocchio to rant about the Illuminati-climate scientist conspiracy].

    • Ha! Rick had an excellent hypothetical on climate change (and Bangladesh!) a while back that was quite interesting. He acknowledged climate change as an issue, and then advocated for – wait for it – open borders to be adopted in order to combat rising sea levels (potential or otherwise).

      My only question for him and other open borders advocates is why stop at the free movement of capital and labor? Why not better diplomacy and policy coordination through federation as well?

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