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Diaspora refers to dispersion of citizens of any country to foreign lands for various reasons. Like most peoples of the world, Bengalis have joined the world trend of human mobility across continents and countries. Historical evidence suggests that from ancient times Bengalis have been immigrating to foreign lands. Scholars agree about the facts of Bengali Diaspora to Southeast Asia including South India and Sri Lanka in ancient and medieval times, the reasons for such movement were not elaborated. Religious missions, social and religious persecutions, famines, trade and commerce, wars etc. are usually considered, depending on circumstances, as probable causes.

It seems that the Bengalis showed aversion to external emigration only from the late Mughal period. The relative prosperity and political stability of the nawabi period might have contributed to grow up this trend. The aversion became almost a taboo during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Overseas visits by Bengalis, however, began to increase from the mid-nineteenth century. Curiously, Bengali diaspora in modern times do not follow the ancient paths of migration. As of olden days, it was not a track followed by people struck by famines or fomented by religious and commercial practitioners. Modern overseas migration is even practised by very ordinary people like domestic servants, field workers, and sailors.

Ever since the European maritime contact was set up with Bengal in the 16th and 17th centuries, Portuguese, French, English, Dutch, Danes and other European peoples, who came to Bengal in mercantile pursuits, set up trading settlements and kuthis in various parts of Bengal. In their establishments were engaged numerous natives including ayahs and domestic servants. As an effect of the Industrial Revolution, domestic servants were already becoming very scarce and expensive in Britain and other West European countries. Many of the nawabs (or people who made fabulous fortunes in Bengal), who became used to oriental comforts, took their ayahs and servants with them from homelands. Their number is not inconsiderable. According to the British census of 1801, Britain alone had about fifty thousand Bengali ayahs and servants. Many of these ayahs had borne children for their masters. This pattern of migration, following the track of the British civilians, military personnel, merchants, indigo planters etc, continued down to the end of the 19th century. Many navigation companies recruited Bengali laskars (sailors), many of whom settled overseas. Mirza Abu Talib Khan, who visited Europe in the closing years of the 18th centuries, had noticed that Bengali sailors had settled in Maldives, Mauritius, St. Helena and England.

Outward migration began to receive state promotion from the late 19th century. In view of recurring famines from the 1860s, successive governments thought of transferring surplus labour to labour hungry areas of the world, particularly to countries having British plantation interests. In 1874, the government adopted a scheme for sending landless peasants to Assam and Burma to participate in reclamation drives there. A Directorate of Emigration to Burma was established in 1874 by the government of Lieutenant Governor Richard Temple (1874-1877). Attractive terms like free allotment of land, high wages and free return passage were offered to induce emigration. Another directorate was established for overseas emigration. Recruiting centres were opened in various parts of Bengal for indentured labour. According to government estimates (1874), over 10,000 agricultural labourers from deficit districts of Bengal took advantage of government schemes and went to Burma and overseas. By 1920, Bengali emigration to Burma reached about a million. As for indentured labour, the response was not as enthusiastic. According to the Annual Administration Report of 1895, hardly ten thousand people engaged themselves as indentured labour since 1874.

Table 1  Departure of Bangladeshi Nationals on Employment by Destination (1986-2010)

Country 1986 1990 1995 2000 2005 2008 2010
UAE 8790 8307 14686 34034 61978 419355 203308
Kuwait 10286 5957 17492 594 47029 319 48
Saudi Arabia 27335 57486 84009 144618 80425 132124 7069
Bahrain 2597 4563 3004 4637 10716 13182 21824
Malaysia 530 1385 35174 17237 2911 131762 919
Oman 6255 13980 20949 5258 4827 52896 42641
Singapore 25 776 3762 11095 9651 56581 39053
Others 23226 11364 8467 5213 33051 68819 75840
Total 68658 103814 187543 222686 252702 875055 390702

Source  Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET).

Labour migration from Bengal, especially to England, got some momentum when imperial laws provided the people of its colonies a special right to work in Britain. Most migrants worked there as service personnel and attendants and became waiters, cleaners, cooks and kitchen assistants, salesperson and laskars. Migration, however, remained essentially a practice of individuals. The industrialised nations of the West began to buy labour from the third world increasingly from the 1950s. The international labour market became buoyant in the 1960s. But Bangalis were slow to take advantage of the market largely because of their disadvantaged political situation. The trend changed in the mid-1970s with the opening of job markets for Bangladeshi labourers in the Middle-East and with the establishment of manpower recruitment agencies.

The government started viewing manpower export as a mechanism of reducing the pressure of mounting unemployment and also as a means of earning foreign exchange. In 1976, remittances by Bangladeshis working abroad reached Tk 760 million. Remittance from abroad became the largest foreign exchange earner followed only jute goods. According to official statistics, only 765 Bangladeshis went abroad for employment in 1975. The figure rose to 6,087 persons in the following year. The number increased progressively upto 2008. But in next two years (2009-2010), the opportunity for Bangladeshi workers declined remarkably for various reasons including global recessions specially the crisis in labour market of the Middle East. Table-1 presents the relevant data by country of destination.

Table 2  Migration of Bangladeshi Nationals by Types of Workers  (1976-2010).

Year The number of migration based on skill Total
Professionals Skilled workers Semi-skilled workers Unskilled workers
1976 568 1,775 543 3,201 6,087
1980 1,983 12,209 2,343 13,538 30,073
1985 2,568 28,225 1,823 39,078 77,694
1990 6,004 3,561 20,792 41,405 103,814
1995 6,352 59,907 32,055 89,229 187,543
2000 10,669 99,606 26,461 85,950 222,686
2005 1,945 113,655 24,546 112,556 252,702
2010 387 90,621 12,469 279,673 383,150
Total 180,680 2,151,125 1,038,137 3,744,468 7,114,410
 % Of total number 02.54 30.24 14.59 52.63 -

Source Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training.

Remittances by Bangladeshis working abroad and the businessmen were Tk 4.96 billion and Tk 693.60 billion in 1980 and 2010 respectively. About 65% of the Bangladeshis leaving for employment abroad in 1990 were unskilled or semi-skilled workers, 6% construction labour, 6% vehicle drivers, 8% technicians, 5% catering workers and 10% professionals including engineers, doctors and teachers. By 2010, the composition shifted towards an increased share of workers with an absolute increase in the number of migrants. During this year, 2.54% of the Bangladeshis migrate for various professionals, 30.24% were skilled workers, 14.59% semi-skilled labours and 52.63% unskilled workers. Table-2 shows the distribution of Bangladeshi migrants by groups of skilled and unskilled workers.

Apart from a partial solution of the unemployment problem and as a foreign exchange earner, the migration of Bangladeshis to countries of the Middle-East, Europe, North America and South-East and East Asia has had a major impact on the economy and culture of the country in terms of developing new forms of business and entrepreneurship, transfer of technology, and exchange of culture. [Sirajul Islam]