In the Bangla language, “bidesh” literally means “foreign land”, “abroad”, as opposed to Bangladesh, “the country, the land, where Bangla is spoken.”
Bangladeshi migration in Italy is a relatively recent phenomenon. Some pioneers started arriving at the Peninsula in the 1980s. Reasons for this migration were increasing immigration restrictions in other European countries (such as France, Switzerland, or the Netherlands and, at least a decade earlier, the UK) in combination with deep economic and social transformations as well as political turbulence in the country of origin. But it was only in the 1990s that Italy became an important destination for Bangladeshi migrants. Undocumented Bangladeshi migrants already present in central European countries were attracted to Italy due to a series of amnesties that granted (temporary) residence permits to irregular migrants, and a growing demand for flexible, low-cost labor. While in 1986 about one hundred Bangladeshi migrants were regularized in Italy, this number grew to almost 4,000 in 1990; by the early 2000s more than 70,000 migrants from Bangladesh had received a residence permit in the framework of regularization measures.
Today, the Bangladeshi community represents the seventh largest community of third country nationals in Italy, counting around 146.000 people.
The Bangladeshi community in Italy
Until the end of the 1990s Bangladeshi migrants were concentrated almost exclusively in Rome, where 92 percent of them lived. Back then, the Bangladeshi community in Italy’s capital was one of the largest Bangladeshi communities in Europe, second only to London.
The first generation of Bangladeshis in Italy belonged to the middle and sometimes upper-middle class of the country of origin: educated sons of professionals, entrepreneurs and government executives. In Italy, however, they carried out humble jobs that they would not have agreed to perform in their country of origin, such as dishwasher, street vendor, helper in shops, cleaners, and, at best, unskilled factory worker, especially in the metalworking, shipbuilding, and tanning sectors. Despite the social downgrading experienced in Italy, these educated young bachelors from the Bangladeshi middle class accepted such jobs because they guaranteed a salary that was higher than what they would have earned in their country of origin. In addition, in Bangladesh skilled jobs were scarce and unemployment among young educated Bangladeshis was high. In working in these jobs in Italy, the young Bangladeshi men hoped to improve their social position and that of their left-behind family members.
After the 1990s, especially those migrants from Bangladesh who came into possession of a valid residence permit left Rome and moved to other parts of Italy, especially the prosperous North-East, where they found more stable and long-term jobs in factories and workshops as low-wage process workers. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Italian economy and labor market were relatively inclusive and offered a good degree of professional stability. However, this has changed especially after the economic crisis of 2008. Today, the labor market does no longer offer migrants many possibilities for upward social mobility. Therefore, many Bangladeshi migrants who have acquired Italian citizenship and therefore may move freely within the European Union, seek new economic opportunities and move on to other European countries.
One day they left for London, but then Brexit came about
The economic crisis in Italy and its repercussions have triggered return and secondary migration: A growing number of foreign-born Italian citizens has left the country. For example, in 2016, there were about 29,000 Italians of foreign descent who emigrated, 19 percent more than in 2015. Most of them migrated to other EU member states. Of these foreign-born Italian emigrants nine percent were born in Bangladesh; the overwhelming majority (92 percent) of them moved to the United Kingdom (UK). The motivations behind this migration are a complex bundle of economic and cultural, collective and individual pressures and incentives, including aspirations for upward social mobility for the children, expectations to find in the UK a more multicultural and meritocratic society as well as better opportunities in the labor market; the desire to enter a larger community of Bangladeshis; and the search for a more inclusive welfare system.
However, the Brexit limited the possibilities of citizens from EU member states to immigrate to the UK and to legally stay there. This has made secondary movements from Italy to the UK more difficult and has brought about new challenges for migrants originating from Bangladesh already present in the country. Some of them are willing to leave the UK and return to Italy or move on to other EU countries. Others are leaving London with its large Bangladeshi community and take residence in less expensive cities within the UK in which they may be less dependent on public welfare to make ends meet. Some also strive to acquire British citizenship. How the Brexit will shape migration movements of migrants born in Bangladesh between Italy and the UK in the long-run remains to be seen.