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Urbanization, Migration Systems within Bangladesh and Translocal Social Spaces | Bangladesh |

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Urbanization, Migration Systems within Bangladesh and Translocal Social Spaces

Benjamin Etzold

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Mobility marks the daily life of many people in Bangladesh. It is a strategy to secure their livelihoods. Annually, hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis leave to work abroad, but internal migration has also been on the rise in recent years against the backdrop of a growing garments industry.

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is a megacity of contrasts. The city's biggest slum (Karail) is located directly opposite Gulshan, the district of business and diplomats. (© Benjamin Etzold)

In 2015, Bangladesh had an estimated population of 161 million people. Two thirds of the population still lives in rural areas; one third resides in urban areas (see Table 6). But due to prevailing poverty and food insecurity in some parts of the country, regular disruptions of rural livelihoods by natural hazards such as cyclones and floods, more economic opportunities in cities, centralistic educational structures, and improved transportation networks, more and more Bangladeshis have become mobile. The 2011 population census revealed that 13.5 million people have left the administrative district in which they were born, which is ten percent of the population. Most movements take place within the country and over shorter distances. 44 percent of these 13.5 million internal migrants have moved from rural to urban areas, another 43 percent from rural to rural areas, nine percent from one city to another, and only four percent from urban to rural areas. Internal migration is thus an everyday practice in Bangladesh. Nonetheless, nine out of ten people have not (yet) been mobile themselves.

There are over 4.200 garment factories in Bangladesh. Most of them are located in Dhaka, the capital. (© Benjamin Etzold)

The growth of the garments industry triggered rising internal migration to Bangladesh’s large cities. The production and export of textiles started in the early 1980s, which gradually changed Bangladesh’s role in the global economy fundamentally. In 1985, roughly 120,000 people worked in 380 garment factories, while it was around 1.6 million workers in 3,200 factories in 2000, and even four million workers in 4,200 factories in 2014. This industrial boom also led to social transformations as young rural women, who did not migrate in large numbers before, gained access to livelihood opportunities in the urban factories. The garment factories are predominantly situated in and around the capital city, which fueled the growth of Dhaka’s economy and population (see Table 6). Other major cities could not compete with Dhaka’s extensive population growth. Chittagong, for instance, once the major harbor city of Bangladesh, not only lost economic weight, its share of the total urban population also decreased significantly.

Table 6: Population and city development in Bangladesh (in thousand people)

1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 2020
(total population)
37,895 49,537 66,309 82,498 107,386 132,383 151,152 169,566
Urban population1,6232,5445,03512,25221,27531,23046,03564,480
% of the total population4%5%8%15%20%24%31%38%
Dhaka 336 508 1,374 3,266 6,621 10,285 14,731 20,989
% of the total population1%1%2%4%6%8%10%12%
% of the urban population21%20%27%27%31%33%32%33%
Chittagong 289 360 723 1,340 2,023 3,308 4,106 5,155
% of the urban population18%14%14%11%10%11%9%8%
Khulna 61 123 310 627 985 1,247 1,098 1,039
% of the urban population4%5%6%5%5%4%2%2%
Rajshahi 39 56 105 238 521 678 786 943
% of the urban population2%2%2%2%2%2%2%2%

Source: UN (2014), World Urbanization Prospects, the 2014 Revision, New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, Externer Link: (accessed: 2-4-2015).

Inside Bangladesh, migrants move in order to earn extra cash-income that is needed for their family’s daily consumption, to overcome livelihood crises such as hunger during the annual lean season, to diversify risks and buffer shocks such as failed harvests, or to invest in their own future through better education or better jobs. Several migration systems coexist: permanent rural-urban and urban-urban migration, temporary migration to cities, and seasonal labor migration to agricultural regions. People’s access to migration opportunities and their choice of destinations reflects existing patterns of social inequality: Members from more affluent households move to urban destinations for secure employment in the formal economy or for higher education. The rural "middle class" (and "lower class") either goes to cities like Dhaka to work in the garments industries, the construction sector or the informal economy, or temporarily moves to other rural regions in order to work as agricultural laborers during the harvest seasons. The poorest people often cannot afford the initial investments needed for migration, nor do they have access to necessary networks or even the physical capability to migrate at all. They remain locally "trapped" in poverty.

Garments made in Bangladesh are exported all over the world in containers (in the background of the image). Still, 20 per cent of the population live in great poverty. The image shows homeless people sleeping on the roof of the city's central train station. (© Benjamin Etzold)

Bangladeshi families who have migrants among their members nowadays organize their livelihoods dynamically across different places. Their life is characterized through their experience of migration, their social networks across and their "simultaneous embeddedness" in specific places. They are living translocal lives and those who have migrated internationally have built "transnational social spaces". The translocal or transnational relations between migrants and those that are left at home are carefully maintained through money transfers, regular mobile phone or skype calls as well as facebook and other social media. The home village is visited regularly, in particular for traditional festivities that play an important cultural role for a community and for family life, for instance marriages, funerals or Eid-ul-Fitr at the end of the Ramadan.

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



  1. BBS (2012), p. 322.

  2. According to the data provided by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, Externer Link: (accessed: 3-21-2015).

  3. Afsar (2005); World Bank (2007); Siddiqui et al. (2010).

  4. See Afsar (2005), Etzold et al. (2014), and Peth/Birtel (2015) for more insights into the relation between social inequality and (seasonal) labor migration.

  5. See, for instance, Steinbrink (2009), Brickel/Datta (2011) or Greiner/Sakdapolrak (2013) for an introduction to the academic literature on transnationalism, translocality and translocal livelihoods.

  6. See Gardner (1995), Danneker (2005), and Zeitlyn (2012) for vivid descriptions of Bangladeshi international migrants and the diaspora’s transnational lives, and Etzold (2014), Peth/Birtel (2015), and Sterly (2015) for explorations into the translocal lives of internal migrants and seasonal workers.


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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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