Garos aspiring migration and mobility in an ‘insecure’ Bangladesh

Moving to urban areas – if possible

I will study in the city if my mom has enough money, capital. I believe it is possible, so I think I will be going there.

But before going, I have to contact everyone I know over there by mobile phone, to find a place to stay and to get to know all about the place.

And of course, all of this will also depend on the results of my studies, if these are good enough for admission in colleges and universities.43

Andrio Marak (20 years old) is one of the many young students, who were about to finish high school at the time of Raitapuro’s fieldwork in Birisiri.

In the excerpt above, he describes how his leaving will depend on the financial situation of his family, connections and network in the city, as well as his own performance in his studies.

In recent research, immobility is recognized as an important dimension of mobility.44

The ability to become mobile is noted as a source of inequality, stratifying contemporary societies.45

According to Flamm and Kaufmann46 the potential to becoming mobile, motility, is the capacity of an actor to move socially and spatially.

Motility can be defined as a form of capital similar to economic, social or cultural capital. Following Flamm and Kaufmann, we employed the concept of motility in the context of the Garos in Bangladesh and examined what defines access to mobility, what kind of previous knowledge or particular skills are required to be able to leave (for cities), and what actors actually do with this access and such skills.

Our analysis showed that the socioeconomic situation of the family and the connections with others already living in urban centres are the most significant factors defining access to mobility for young Garos.

Family also plays an important role in understanding motivations for mobility. Decisions to migrate are often taken within the context of a family or household.47

Family may facilitate or even urge mobility, leaving young people no other option than to leave. Family dreams may encourage daughters or sons to move to cities.

Moreover, having some sort of existing social network is a prerequisite for commencing a life in the city. Most Garos first move in with their relatives, or live in neighbourhoods where other Garos are already residing.

Having a family member, relative or friend in the desired destination enables their move, increases employment opportunities, and helps them to settle down in their new living environment.

While higher education is a priority of many young Garos, the competition for entering the universities is intensive in densely populated Bangladesh.

Completing higher education is a key to accessing to the competitive labour market for skilled labour. However, still only a relatively small number of Garos have the possibility to pursue higher studies.48

Instead many find employment in the garment industry, beauty parlours or as domestic servants. These jobs provide a way of earning income, but at the same time, they are ‘lower status jobs’ perceived as inferior by higher educated Garos. The following example illustrates the perceived differences in social hierarchy.

Six Garo students were sharing an apartment (mess) for boys in Dhaka.49 One of the residents, Aenon Chiran, had recently arrived in Dhaka in search of employment and was staying with his friends.

When he is asked what kind of work he is looking for, he answers: ‘simply any kind of work’. A short silence follows, after which his friend comments: ‘security guard job’, and everybody burst into laughter.

The reason for the fun is explained a little later: a job as a security guard is considered ‘low-level work’, suitable for those who do not have higher degrees, and not for university graduates like Aenon.

By ‘simply any kind of work’ – possibly expressing a certain anxiety about his job prospects in the city – he actually indicated ‘any kind of highly paid and socially valued work’, preferably a government job.

Employment as civil servant provides the security of a pension and is also considered a symbol of status, rendering it the most attractive type of work. However, Aenon represents only a limited number of young Garos – highly educated.

Most Garos are not in the position to even contemplate such kind of employment. Aenon’s comment, therefore, reveals how mobility is contingent on the class background of the aspiring migrant, while engendering a new social hierarchy at the same time.

Many other young Garos have to engage in insecure and risky cross-border activities before they leave for their desired urban destinations.

Living costs in the country’s capital Dhaka or other cities are high and compel many youngsters to seek out alternatives to support their future livelihoods and to secure some savings for later.

At the moment, there seems to be a considerable number of Bangladeshi Garos living on the other side of the border, in the Indian state of Meghalaya.

Since the Indian government has opened up coalmines and initiated the construction of hydropower plants in Meghalaya, many young Garos from Bangladesh have crossed the border to make some money on the other side.

The 20 years old Mikhail Rema, one of the residents of a Garo student apartment in Dhaka, had also worked in a mine for about a year.

Mikhail was from a border village in northern Bangladesh. His journey to Dhaka was not as straightforward as that of his roommates.

Mikhail had run away from his village after a dispute with his family and, realizing his savings were not enough to cover his daily expenses for an extensive period of time, he had decided to cross the border illegally to Meghalaya, where he worked in a coal mine owned by one of his relatives for 1 year.50

Mining is often carried out under hazardous circumstances, which are both harmful to the people working there as well as to the environment.

Mikhail worked amidst other Garos and Khasis51 in a medium-sized mine, employing some fifty labourers.

Working conditions were contingent on the outside temperature; sometimes the water inside the dark tunnel could be freezing.

Workers carried knives and guns for their personal safety. Mikhail wanted to show Raitapuro some photos on his mobile phone, but realized he had no pictures of the coalmine, only a few shots of him posing by himself on a nearby bridge.

He briefly stared at his phone and, after a short pause, confessed that his time in India had been very tough.52

For many young people like Mikhail, employment in the mines is temporary and seasonal.

Most of the workers in the mines are Garos from Assam or Bangladesh, who come for seasonal work. Mikhail had met several students, who would work during their study breaks, or until they were able to afford tuition fees for their universities.

Others take part in illegal cross-border trade to earn the money needed for a move to Dhaka or to other urban centres. McDuie-Ra recognizes that smuggling is a major aspect of cross border movement between India and Bangladesh.53

Border security and control on both sides of the border have increased, but since Garos live on both sides of the border, it is difficult for border guards to distinguish who is from which side of the border.

Our findings demonstrated that educational aspirations requiring migration to urban centres in Bangladesh prompt many young people to engage in cross-border low-skilled and risky labour, before making their way to their desired destinations.

Our observations also confirm the argument that the distinction between internal and international migration is problematic,54 as similar aspirations might encourage actors to choose diverse migration strategies depending on their circumstances, and that cross-border mobility may facilitate internal migration, or the other way around.

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