Migration and mobility in Bangladesh
Mobility is a fact of life. To be human, indeed, to be animal, is to have some kind of capacity for mobility. We experience the world as we move through it.20
Notwithstanding the fact that mobility is an intrinsic part of being human, the scholarship of mobility has only proliferated since the turn of the century and produced what is commonly known as the ‘mobility turn in social sciences’.21
The ‘mobility turn’ underlines that all levels of social life are being reshaped in one way or the other by mobility.22 While anthropologists have a long history of studying ideas of mobility, for a long time the use of the concept of mobility was mainly limited to describing boundary crossing movements, which deviated from normative place-bound communities.23
After the emergence of globalization studies and the introduction of mobility as a new key-concept in the social sciences, anthropologists have recognized the importance of studying mobility/immobility through the eyes of the ‘people on move’, examining critically the dynamics of mobility and paying attention to inequalities, exclusion and immobility produced by new global movements.24
We emphasize that mobility encompasses much more than physical movement from one place to another. Since aspirations and imaginaries about mobility are also recognized as a key to our understanding of local perceptions of mobility,25 we focused on analysing three interconnected dimensions of mobility, which seemed particularly meaningful to our research participants. The most explicit dimension was that of physical movement from rural areas to urban centres, or even abroad, which we refer to as ‘spatial mobility’.
This increasingly intensifying phenomenon has influenced the lives of people ‘on the move’, as well as those of people who have ‘stayed put’, both by bringing about new opportunities, as well as new forms of insecurity. Where spatial mobility is highly desired, we found that underlying these aspirations of moving were desires to improving ones social status and upward social mobility.
Furthermore, increasing access to the Internet, possibilities for transnational connections and globally circulating imaginaries (transnational connectivity) have become part of local lives.
Mobilities (defined as spatial, social and economic mobility and transnational connectivity) now play a key role in the contemporary lives and future aspirations of many young Garos.
Not only have they become increasingly connected to new platforms of information through modern communication technology, Garos have also joined the growing forces of people moving out from rural areas into urban centres or even abroad, in search for new opportunities in the form of higher education and jobs.
Bangladesh as an independent nation–state has witnessed rapid sociocultural, political and economic transformations since its inception in 1971.
International aid has lost its significance in comparison with the impressive growth of the ready-made garments export industry, the export of shrimps and the rise of remittances, particularly from the Gulf countries.
Agriculture’s contribution to the GDP has dropped from one-half to one-sixth, and the services sector has increased from one-third to two-thirds between the 1970s and the beginning of the twenty-first century.26
All these changes have fundamentally impacted the lives of millions of Bangladeshis in several ways. The long-standing practice of the upper classes to invest in the education of their children (abroad)27 has spread amongst the (aspiring) middle classes.
Education is now valued highly and considered the route to better-paying and higher-status jobs.28 For example, literacy rates amongst male youth have increased from 29.2% in 1981 to 55.9% in 2009.29 However, unemployment amongst the educated youth has also increased.
The country has also witnessed an annual 3.5% increase in urban–rural migration.30 Presently, many of the new migrants are women, contrary to the recent past, when women were excluded from the labour markets through hegemonic practices like purdah.
In particular, Dhaka has witnessed a mass influx of people from other parts of the country. Its population increased from 1 million in 1971 to 14 million in 2007, and is expected to reach 25 million by 2025.31
The linkages between migration, imagination and notions of self and the world have been subject to various recent studies.32
These researches demonstrate how transnational migration has altered local imaginings of global possibilities and individual aspirations.
In 2012, for example, Gallup survey reported that 8 million Bangladeshis shared the wish to migrate to the United States (as compared to 10 million Indians and 5 million Mexicans), and it is clear that emigration is the ambition of ever more Bangladeshis, from all segments of society.33
In studies of ethnic or indigenous minorities, however, the understanding of the members of these communities as mobile subjects has remained strangely deficient.
A relatively limited number of authors34 however have demonstrated how in Bangladesh mobility has indeed become a vital ingredient of indigenous movements.
They, for example, demonstrate how such movements have contributed to the social and political mobility of indigenous leaders.
They also analyse the growth of nation-wide platforms for indigenous peoples for the expression of their rights, and demonstrate how the imagination of self in this context has gained a global dimension, being part of a global movement for minority rights.35