With nearly 8 million of its 160 million residents living abroad, Bangladesh has one of the world’s largest emigrant populations, ranking only behind India, Mexico, China, Russia, and Syria, according to estimates from the United Nations’ Population Division. As temporary workers who head overwhelmingly to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Bangladeshi migrants remit much of their savings back home every month.
Their contributions form a crucial lifeblood for Bangladesh, which in recent years has reduced poverty, fashioned itself into one of South Asia’s economic success stories, and has been on track to exit the United Nations list of least developed countries by 2024. Yet the country, which is situated in a low-lying delta, has seen its advances hamstrung in part by persistent exposure to the adverse effects of climate change and frequent natural calamities, including cyclones and typhoons that have killed thousands over recent decades. At the same time, Bangladesh has responded to one of the largest contemporary humanitarian crises, receiving 1.1 million Rohingya who have fled neighboring Myanmar.
The COVID-19 pandemic is adding to these challenges. As the coronavirus outbreak has spread rapidly around the globe, the Bangladeshi government has struggled to combat it. The public-health crisis has been exacerbated by the economic ripple effects resulting from the pandemic-induced difficulties faced by Bangladeshis working abroad: Large-scale job loss, salary reductions, and increase in deportations from the GCC. The migrant workers’ sudden loss of income and unexpected financial precarity have profound consequences for their families and communities, with remittances that normally equal nearly one-third of Bangladesh’s national budget now predicted to fall significantly.
This article sheds light on the pandemic-generated disruptions for the approximately 4.2 million Bangladeshi migrants working in the GCC states and the implications for their family members and the broader Bangladeshi economy.
The Migration of Bangladeshi Contract Laborers to the GCC States
Historically, the people of Bangladesh were not prone to migrate abroad, and instead the region—which was a part of the British Empire and then the dominion of Pakistan before its independence in 1971—received multiple waves of migrants from different countries, including the Middle East. This is why the Bengali people do not have a single ethnic background, and are instead of a mixed heritage. Migration from what is now Bangladesh to the Persian Gulf region was almost nonexistent before the 1930s, when British colonial rulers recruited laborers to their oil fields, and did not become large-scale in nature until the 1970s. Following the formation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and then the 1973 oil crisis, the phenomenal rise in oil prices sparked a wave of regional development projects and industrialization, generating huge demand for temporary migrant laborers. A migration boom followed, although the initial number of arriving Bangladeshis was modest, with just 6,087 such migrants in 1976. Migration to the region ballooned in subsequent years, particularly of laborers from South Asia.
Since Bangladesh gained its independence in 1971, more than 77 percent of Bangladeshi migrants headed to the GCC states—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—which are heavily reliant on foreign labor (see Figure 1). The government does not maintain data on these migrants’ return.
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