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International Migration to Bangladesh | Bangladesh |

Bangladesh The Rohingya Refugee Crisis Bangladesh at a Glance Historical Developments International Migration from Bangladesh Migration Policies International Migration Urbanization, Migration Systems within Bangladesh and Translocal Social Spaces Climate Change and Internal Migration in Bangladesh References

International Migration to Bangladesh

Benjamin Etzold

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Bangladesh has a long tradition of sending labor abroad. There are numerous laws and institutions that frame these migration movements and aim at protecting Bangladeshi migrant workers' rights. In contrast to this, immigration is hardly important.

Many Bangladeshis regularly commute between their home villages in rural areas and the mega city of Dhaka. Most of the distances are covered by bus (© Benjamin Etzold)

Compared to the significance of international out-migration of workers from Bangladesh for the nation’s economy and its long-term development strategy, immigration and refugee protection are not high on the political agenda. Since the 1960s, Bangladesh always had a negative net migration rate – emigrants continuously outnumbered immigrant flows. In 2013, approximately 1.4 million foreign nationals lived in Bangladesh, which accounts for only 0.9 percent of the population. Malaysia, Myanmar, China, Indonesia and Laos are the top five countries of origin (see Table 5). Immigration statistics do not reveal whether the more than 45,000 people from the USA, for instance, are expatriates who work in the fields of development, science, technology or the garments industry, or former Bangladeshi emigrants who acquired US citizenship and returned to Bangladesh. The Government of Bangladesh passed visa regulations for tourists and expatriate workers, but has not explicitly defined an immigration policy.

Table 5: Top 10 countries of origin of international migrants living in Bangladesh, 2013

Country of OriginNumber
5Lao People's Democratic Republic86,526
6United States of America45,158
9Great Britain and Northern Ireland32,852
10 Bahrain29,603
World total 1,396,514

Source: Calculated from UN (2013), Trends in International Migrant Stock, the 2013 Revision, Table Migrants by Destination and Origin, UN database, New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, Externer Link: (accessed: 8-16-2015).

The problems of two minority groups in Bangladesh need mentioning. First, there are the Biharis, Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated from the Hindu-dominated Indian state of Bihar to former East Pakistan at the time of India’s Partition in 1947. During the civil war in Bangladesh they fought alongside troops from West Pakistan. After Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, they remained in the newly formed nation, but still opted for a Pakistani citizenship. They were settled in numerous refugee camps all over the country, and since then have been excluded from society and from access to social and educational services. In 2008, the 250,000 Biharis who live all over the country were granted national identity cards with which they could participate in the elections. Even today, however, some of them are not recognized as full Bangladeshi citizens. Many still consider themselves as "stranded" or stateless people.

Second, there are the Rohingya, who have always lived in the region of the present-day border of Bangladesh and Myanmar. In Myanmar, they are regarded as a minority of Bengali-speaking Muslims. They do not have full citizen rights and are subject to repressive state practices, political harassment and social exclusion. In 1978, some 200,000 and in 1991/92, over 250,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, which never signed the 1951 Geneva Convention for the protection of refugees. The support that the refugees received in Bangladesh was minimal. Some of the refugee camps that were established in the district Cox Bazar by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) still exist today and host some 2,600 people. Around 236,000 of all Rohingya refugees were repatriated to Myanmar in the mid-1990s, but returned "illegally" straight away. In total, about 200,000 refugees and undocumented migrants from Myanmar live in Bangladesh (see Table 5). Both recognized refugees as well as the "self-settled" Rohingya face economic exploitation, political harassment and social exclusion in the country. Between 2012 and 2014, the number of migrants and refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh who tried to reach Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia by boat tripled from 20,000 to 63,000. In May 2015, tens of thousands of these "irregular" migrants were trapped in the border region between Thailand and Malaysia or spent weeks floating in boats in the Andaman Sea. Besides ongoing violence against the Muslim minority in Myanmar, this humanitarian crisis can partially be explained by Bangladesh’s unwelcoming attitude towards the Rohingya refugees.

This article is part of the Interner Link: country profile Bangladesh.

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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.
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