Historical Developments of Migration Patterns

In Bangladesh, migration is a normal part of everyday life and closely connected to the country's political and economic development. People and goods have been moving throughout the Bengal delta for centuries.

Bangladeshi labour migrants arriving at Dhakar International Airport wait to have their passports checked. (© Benjamin Etzold )

It is a "crossroad" between Tibet and Nepal in the North, the Ganges Plains in the West and the Brahmaputra valley in the East. Local traders, pilgrims, missionaries, and adventurers, and since the 16th century also Portuguese, Dutch and British trading companies, have shaped the society and economy of the Bengal delta and its emerging urban trading hubs such as Kolkata, Dhaka and Chittagong. During the Mughal Empire (1612 to 1757), an aristocratic territorial system was introduced, which led to the concentration of power and land control in the hands of large landholders. This marked the beginning of feudal labor relations. Until today, land ownership is the basis of social inequality and a key driver of migration in the country. Landless laborers were always (forced to be) more mobile than families that controlled and cultivated a significant size of land.

In 1757, the British East India Company gained control in the Bengal delta. During almost 200 years of British colonial rule the feudal system of land control intensified. Agricultural land, on which rice, cotton, sugar cane and many other crops were commercially cultivated, was expanded significantly. Large-scale production of export-oriented cash crops such as jute, silk, tea, and indigo was introduced under systems of coerced labor. The British recruited thousands of laborers from Assam to work in tea plantations in what is now north-eastern Bangladesh. Meanwhile, many landless peasants and sharecroppers, who had to give away most of their harvest to their landlords, found it difficult to feed and meet even the basic needs of their families. They had to diversify their livelihood activities. Many then started to work as petty traders in commercial centers or seasonally migrated to other regions – in particular from the more densely populated eastern parts to western and northern parts of the delta – in search for a more secure and better life. Today’s patterns of the informal urban economy and temporary labor mobility were thus already initiated in the 19th century. Young men from the south-eastern parts of the Bengal delta also found employment in the British merchant navy. Bangladeshi men are still working as sailors on the world’s oceans. Former colonial ties thus continue to shape the migration patterns of many Bangladeshis. The United Kingdom (UK) is still one of the favorite migration destinations, in particular for the educated elite.

Independence from colonial rule and the Partition of India in 1947 triggered the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. One million Hindus were forced to leave or left the territory because they feared discrimination and political violence in the newly created and Muslim dominated eastern province of Pakistan. Most of them went to Bengali speaking regions of India, in particular to Kolkata. By early 1948, around 800,000 Muslims, who previously lived in the Indian regions of West Bengal, Assam and Bihar, had settled in East Pakistan. The borders between the two newly created states remained porous. This became obvious during the civil war in 1971 when the population of Bengali origin of Pakistan's eastern province fought for independence from West Pakistan, and also during the huge famine in 1974. More than ten million Bengali refugees temporarily sought refuge in India. Ever since, a high cross-border mobility of people between India and Bangladesh has been the norm rather than the exception[1].

This text is part of the country profile Bangladesh.
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See van Schendel (2009) for a detailed account of Bangladesh’s history and the role that migration plays in it.

Benjamin Etzold

Benjamin Etzold

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.
Email: etzold@giub.uni-bonn.de

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