Bangladesh's history is a history of migration. People have been mobile in the Bengal delta region for centuries. Patterns of contemporary labor migration go back to colonial times. Every year, around 500.000 Bangladeshis leave the country to work abroad. Bangladesh's economy depends on the emigrants' remittances.
After the Second World War, the United Kingdom faced labor shortages and therefore began to attract labor migrants of the Commonwealth states. Young men from Bangladesh, in particular from the Sylhet region, thus left for the UK, mostly settled in London, and contributed to meeting the increasing demand for cheap labor. This initiated chain migration of further workers and family members to the UK in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and led to close transnational connections between Bangladesh and the UK. The officially recorded flow of people from (back then) East Pakistan to international destinations was, however, still quite small. The increasing outward orientation of Bangladeshis after national independence in 1971 as well as the 1973 oil boom and thus an increasing need for cheap labor in the Middle East then led to a rapid growth of international labor migration from Bangladesh (see Figure 1). In 1976, only 6,000 Bangladeshis left to work abroad. Since then, the number of both temporary expatriate workers and permanent out-migrants has increased dramatically. Between 1990 and 1995, 1.2 million Bangladeshis left the country to live and work abroad. Out-migration increased to almost three million between 2005 and 2010. In the year 2008 alone, 875,000 migrant workers were recruited from Bangladesh.
According to the National Population and Housing Census, 2.8 million Bangladeshi household members were living abroad in 2011. 95 percent of them were men. The fact that these migrants are still considered "household members" and not "emigrants" indicates the temporary nature of these labor movements. The survey shows that more than 500,000 migrant workers had returned home between 2006 and 2011, a time period in which 3.5 million had left the nation. In 2014, 426,000 people migrated to work in another country – most often on temporary labor contracts.
The states of the Interner Link: Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are the most important destinations for Bangladeshi laborers. From 1980 to 2010, the number of migrants who annually left for work in the Gulf States increased tenfold from 25,000 to more than 250,000 per year. From 2005 to 2010 alone, the Gulf States attracted more than 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers, that is 52 percent of all international movements from Bangladesh. Most of them migrated to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (647,000), Saudi Arabia (523,000), and Qatar (154,000) (see Figure 2). Since the United Arab Emirates introduced further restrictions for male labor migrants in 2012, the number of male Bangladeshi workers going there decreased rapidly, while the number of female labor migrants to the UAE quadrupled. Both male and female labor migration to Oman and Qatar increased rapidly in recent years. These two states were the two most important destinations for short-contract migrant workers from Bangladesh in 2014.
Besides the Gulf States, other important destination countries are Malaysia with 198,000 immigrants as well as the United States with more than 128,000 and, still, the United Kingdom with 106,000 arrivals from Bangladesh in the period 2005 to 2010. More than 631,000 Bangladeshis have been registered in India in the same time period. Many more arrive and leave undocumented as the 4,000-km-long border between India and Bangladesh is difficult to control and irregular border crossings of members of both states are frequent. Conflicts about "illegal migration", the militarization of the border – India has finished building a barbed-wired fence on three quarters of the borders’ length – and the rising share of Bengali-speaking Muslims in the Indian states West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura are subject of diplomatic tensions between the two states. In total, about 3.2 million people of Bangladeshi origin lived in India in 2013 (see Table 2). In the past five years, more and more laborers left to work in Singapore’s construction industry. In 2014, Singapore was the third most important destination for short-contract migrant workers. While Libya has decreased in significance as a destination for Bangladeshi workers since the war in 2011. Instead, Lebanon, Jordan, and Mauritius have become increasingly important destinations, in particular for female migrants who work there as domestic workers or cleaners. Besides the UAE and Saudi Arabia, these three countries exemplify the growing significance of female labor migration. The share of women in Bangladesh’s overseas labor force increased rapidly from only one percent in 1994 to 18 percent in 2014 (see Table 1).
Table 1: Top ten countries of migrant overseas workers from Bangladesh, 2014
* Member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)
InfoboxLabor conditions of Bangladeshi migrant workers in the Gulf States
As other migrant workers from South Asia, Bangladeshis often face quite harsh working conditions and inhumane treatment at their respective destinations. Most of the labor migrants from Bangladesh who work in the Interner Link: Gulf States are unskilled or low-qualified. Male migrants are employed in the construction industry and in informal business services, such as cleaning, driving, or tailoring. They also work in manufacturing, agriculture, and retail. Women are employed as housemaids in private homes or cleaners in public buildings and offices. Most of the Bangladeshi migrant workers have come to the Gulf through recruitment agencies that earn their money with selling the workers’ labor to construction, industrial or service companies; some also came through personal connections. In both cases, the migrants have to bear the costs for the processing of visas and workplace permits as well as for travel upfront. The contracts under which laborers from Bangladesh, Nepal, India or Sri Lanka are – most often temporarily – employed are often highly exploitative. The workers have little formal rights and largely depend on their "sponsor", a citizen of the respective Gulf State who manages the visa process and their workplace recruitment and with whom the migrant workers’ passports remain during the contract period*. Many are forced to work overtime.
The workplace security standards are very low, which frequently leads to illness, injuries and has already caused the death of hundreds of foreign workers – in 2013 more than 600 migrant workers from Bangladesh lost their lives in accidents at their workplace at various destinations. Moreover, the payment for labor migrants is often delayed and, in general, far below that level of national citizens. They are lodged in poor mass accommodation and do not have adequate access to health and other social services**. Female migrants who work as maids and domestic helpers at their employers’ homes are often subject to sexual harassment and even rape. Nonetheless, most Bangladeshi migrants are willing to pay the exorbitant fees that recruitment and travel agencies charge and endure these – too often – exploitative labor conditions. The income they can generate in the Gulf States is far higher than what they could ever expect to earn at home. Their remittances play a crucial role for their families and the economy back home.
* In the so called kafala system, a migrant is sponsored by a GCC citizen who takes on full economic and legal responsibility for the foreign employee during the contract period. Changes in labor contracts relate directly to changes in immigration status. Migrant workers cannot simply leave one job and take on another as they are “tied” to their sponsor. The kafala system sets the structural foundation for the exploitation of migrant workers in the Gulf (Afsar 2009, Siddiqui 2005, Rahman 2012, Winckler 2012 [Interner Link: http://www.bpb.de/gesellschaft/migration/laenderprofile/150973/gulf-states]).
** See Siddiqui (2005), Afsar (2009), and Rahman (2012) for Bangladeshi labor migration to the Gulf. See also Danneker (2005) and Rudnick (2009) for an analysis of labor migration of Bangladeshi women to Malaysia, and Baey/Yeoh (2015) for Bangladeshi migrant workers in Singapore’s construction industry.
The Bangladeshi Diaspora
According to UN data, more than 7.8 million people of Bangladeshi origin were living in 89 countries of the world in the year 2013. The main host countries are India (3.2 million Bangladeshi migrants), Saudi Arabia (1.3 million), the United Arab Emirates (1.1 million), Malaysia (350,000), Kuwait (279,000), and the United Kingdom (240,000) (see Table 2).
Table 2: Top ten countries of Bangladeshi migration stocks, 2013
* Member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)
The Bangladeshi diaspora community includes people who have migrated to a foreign country as well as their children who have been born either in Bangladesh or in the host country. The size of the diaspora population is thus much bigger than the immigrant population of the respective country. For example, 154,000 immigrants from Bangladesh lived in the United Kingdom in 2000, while the UK’s national census in 2001 recorded 283,000 British citizens of Bangladeshi origin. Many Bangladeshi diaspora members are well established in their host countries. Many have started off as workers in factories, and now run their own restaurants, corner shops and other businesses. Third or even fourth generation Bangladeshi diaspora members in the UK are represented in the mainstream economy and the political system of the British government. Similar observations are also reported for the USA. People of Bangladeshi origin are also active in the media, for example, in the UK, the USA, Canada, Germany, and in Malaysia, where Bangladeshi newspapers are published on a regular basis. Bangladeshi national festivals are arranged by the diaspora community as a part of cultural exchange in the host countries. Such cultural festivals, the Bangla language, Bengali food and also Muslim religious practices, for instance fastening during Ramadan, are crucial for re-producing Bengali identities. It is also important to note that many Bangladeshi immigrants have not cut their ties to family members "back home" in Bangladesh. Frequent communication with family and friends, regular visits to Bangladesh, the transfer of financial resources, and the maintenance of international social networks and kinship relations has led to the emergence of "transnational social fields", which shape the everyday life of both the diaspora communities "abroad" and the family members "back home". In the past four decades, international labor migration and transnational ties have contributed significantly to transformations inside Bangladesh , not only, but in particular through money remittances.
Bangladesh ranks seventh in the list of the world’s top remittance-receiving nations. The remittances Bangladeshi migrants and diaspora members send home to their relatives contribute significantly to household incomes and to Bangladesh's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). According to the Bangladeshi government, remittances amounted to US$ 13.8 billion in 2013, they accounted for more than nine percent of the country's GDP. The total sum of remittances has steadily increased from 1980 (US$ 339 million) to 2012 (US$ 14.2 billion). 2013 was the first year to register a decline (2.3 percent less compared to the previous year). In 2014, remittances re-increased to US$ 14.9 billion (see Figure 3).
The national economy and migrants’ families are highly dependent on the regular financial transfers by migrants, and they are thus vulnerable to ruptures of the money flows. Ninety percent of the money that is being sent to Bangladesh by its migrants and the diaspora comes from ten countries, 58 percent from the Gulf States alone (see Table 3). Economic crises and rising unemployment in the destination countries; unsuccessful negotiations of the sending government with migrant-receiving nations about labor recruitment, payment levels and labor standards; political changes that limit the access of Bangladeshi migrants to overseas labor markets, such as the restriction of male labor migrants in the United Arab Emirates (in 2012); or political crises, such as the civil war and economic breakdown in Libya, where tens of thousands of Bangladeshis had worked before 2011 – all of these factors can lead to an abrupt reduction of temporary labor migrants in a country and thereby impact the overall flows of remittances. Decreasing remittances can also be partly explained by the changing role that remittances play for diaspora communities. On the one hand, upward social mobility of migrants in the host society connected to access to higher paid jobs can increase the overall volume of remittances. On the other hand, as the case of the UK indicates, better social and economic integration of the second and third generation of people with Bangladeshi origin may lead to a stronger social identification with the host country, to the loosening of transnational ties and a decreasing willingness to send money to Bangladesh.
Table 3: Top ten remittances flows from host countries to Bangladesh, 2014
* Member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)
Dr. Benjamin Etzold is Research Associate and Lecturer at the Department of Geography of Bonn University, Germany. He wrote his dissertation on street trading in the mega city Dhaka and was part of a research project on climate change, hunger and migration in Bangladesh. His research foci are development geography and migration studies with a focus on social vulnerability and labor conditions. Email: E-Mail Link: email@example.com
Dr. Bishawjit Mallick is Research Associate at the Institute of Regional Science at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany. In his dissertation, he analyzed social responses to climate risks in Bangladesh's coastal areas. Currently, his research focuses on risk-oriented spatial planning and climate-induced migration processes in Bangladesh. Email: E-Mail Link: firstname.lastname@example.org
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