Bangladeshi diaspora: A force multiplier, from culture to economy

Written By: Pratik Prasenjit WION Web Team
NEW DELHI Published: Mar 26, 2021, 04:59 PM(IST)

A file photo of people waving Bangladesh flag. Photograph:( AFP )

Story highlights

As Bangladesh, a nation of 165 million people, celebrates 50 years of Independence,  the immense role of its large diaspora in contributing and furthering Mujibur Rahman’s dream of a ‘Sonar Bangla’ is worth remembering.

As Bangladesh, a nation of 165 million people, celebrates 50 years of Independence,  the immense role of its large diaspora in contributing and furthering Mujibur Rahman’s dream of a ‘Sonar Bangla’ is worth remembering.

Spread across 89 countries, the story of Bangladesh’s diaspora is intertwined with its history of migration. When the United Kingdom faced labour shortages following World War II, a large group of men across the Bengal Delta region, along with their families, moved to European countries, setting off a chain of migration. 

It reached its peak during the 1970s, with most of the migration originating from the country’s Sylhet region. 

The relaxation of immigration laws also encouraged the new wave of migration to the UK. With women and children arriving to reunite with their families, the communities developed on a larger scale. During the Bangladesh Liberation War, the Bangladeshi diaspora in Britain played a pivotal role by setting up a wealth of community organisations and liberation groups. 

Subsequently, new businesses and restaurants owned by Bangladeshi immigrants flourished, particularly concentrated in the Brick Lane neighbourhood of East London.

This led to close transnational connections between Bangladesh and the UK. According to the 2011 census, there were nearly half-a-million residents of Bangladeshi ethnicity living in the UK. This was a 56 per cent increase in persons of Bangladeshi origin from 2001.

Over the years, the United States has also emerged as a hub for the Bangladeshi diaspora, with mostly economic migrants heavily concentrated in the New York metropolitan area. Canada, too, has hosted a significant number of the Bangladeshi community members - thanks to their shared Commonwealth history.

But it was the oil boom of 1973 that subsequently led to the rapid growth of international labour migration from the South Asian country. According to the  Bangladesh Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training, nearly 1.2 million Bangladeshis left the country to live and work abroad between 1990 and 1995,  with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries being the most favourable destination for Bangladeshi labourers. Between 1980 and 2010, the annual migration of Bangladeshis leaving for work in the Gulf States saw a 10-fold-increase from 25,000 to more than 250,000.

Remittances:

According to a 2018 World Bank report, Bangladesh ranked ninth globally in the list of countries receiving remittances, and third in South Asia. The World Economic Forum said that more than 10 million migrants from Bangladesh sent close to $18 billion in 2019. The remittances have contributed to Bangladesh’s GDP - which has emerged as a South Asian economic growth story. The country’s GDP growth overtook India in 2017 when it clocked 6% growth compared to New Delhi’s 5.8%. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, remittances added about $100 to the country’s $1,795 per capita GDP.

Business Networks:

The Bangladeshi diaspora represents a major export market that allows the diversification of the country’s exports. It has also helped in the socio-economic and political development of the community members living abroad. According to the International Labour Organisation, a network of Bangladeshi restaurants in Britain provides employment to Bangladeshi migrant workers who come on short-term contracts.

“Relatives play an important role in the management of such businesses in Bangladesh, and diaspora investors prefer to give employment opportunities to the members of their own home community,” said ILO, in a report titled “Reinforcing ties: Enhancing contributions from Bangladeshi diaspora members”, compiled jointly with the government of Bangladesh.

Cultural connect:

The Bangladeshi diaspora, especially in the UK, the United States and Canada, observes the annual Boishakhi Mela (fair) in the month of May. The fair, which celebrates the arrival of the summer season, was launched in Banglatown in London's Tower Hamlets borough - which hosts a massive Bangladeshi population.

Apart from showcasing the Bangla culture and tradition, the festival also offers a platform to connect with the diaspora and celebrate the achievements and emerging voices of the community.

Similarly, Dhaka’s diplomatic missions abroad also organise events on International Mother Language Day as a tribute to its linguistic martyrs of 1952. On 21 February 1952, students and political activists were killed by the Pakistani police for demanding official status for their native tongue, Bengali.

Philanthropy:

Motivated by strong cultural and religious identity, diaspora philanthropy has emerged as a promising means of channelling charity to the home country.

Although most of the remittance is directed to households, a significant portion is transferred as charity towards community development through faith-based organisations. According to a US Aid study, the average annual contribution of the US Bangladeshi diaspora to charities in Bangladesh in 2015 was $3930.

When Bangladesh announced a lockdown following the outbreak of the Covid-19, the Bangladeshi diaspora launched a campaign #BacharLorai (Fight for Survival) to mobilise funds to distribute food supplies. This helped in providing relief to tens of thousands of people in the South Asian country.

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