People of Bangladesh origin can be seen everywhere in the United Kingdom (UK). The British Bangladeshis are, in fact, can be said to be the forerunner of migration of Bangladesh origin people to other countries of the world. Now the out migration has become a common phenomenon in Bangladesh. This intensified after the liberation of the country in 1971. In recent time, job opportunities and better livelihood prospects allure them to migrate to other countries. According to one estimate about 10 million Bangladeshis are living abroad though the official figure is around 8 million.
Records suggest that people from this part of the sub continent have been going to the UK from the early 19th century. Now they form one of the largest migrant communities in England. It is estimated that over half a million Bangladesh origin people and their descendents are living there. However, the overwhelming majority of them came from the erstwhile greater Sylhet (Sylhet, Maulvibazar and Sunamgang) district. For obvious reason, the sub continent has historic tie with UK as one of its erstwhile prized overseas colonies. Bengali speaking people started going to England in the latter half of the 19th century as ship workers (Laskar/Khalashi). Here it needs to be mentioned that a large number of immigrants from the sub-continent came during British post-war economic boom time. Another wave of Bangladeshis came to England during and after the liberation of the country in 1971. Some important factors contributed to this end. Economic uncertainties and hardship immediately after independence, lack of employment opportunities and change in the mindset of the people to go for better opportunities abroad were the contributing factors to go to UK. Here it may be noted that the favourable immigrant policy then pursued by the British government also helped Bangladeshis to come in increasing number. These new migrants found jobs in mills, factories and industries scattered throughout the UK. They also needed to cook traditional food for their fellow country-men that later led to the establishment of restaurants. In many cases, they also started working as cooks in these restaurants. This ultimately became one of their important professions for many years. It is learnt that the first Indian restaurant opened in London in 1809. However, the restaurants that one see now in different parts of the UK owes their existence to the Bangladeshi seamen as many of them were also ship cooks. In fact, setting up of Indian restaurants in large numbers started in the 1960s. Current estimates suggest that around 90% of Indian restaurants in Britain are owned and run by Bangladeshis. Besides, during the 60s and the 70s they also found some employments in social services run by the government, banks and in the distribution sector. However, those were lower rung positions. Here it needs to be pointed out that students and physicians also went to the UK for higher studies and many of them subsequently settled down there taking advantage of the immigrant friendly policy then pursued by the British government. The earlier group of people was, in fact, the first generation of the immigrants of Bangladesh origin and had very limited or purpose for coming and staying in the UK. The overwhelming majority of both the groups never thought of permanently setting down in the UK. They considered their stay as an employment opportunity with much better financial remuneration compared to what they would get in Bangladesh. So their sole purpose was to work and save money and later send it back home to meet family expenses and buying properties. Even for many years, a great majority of them even did not bring their wives and children in the UK. Only from the 70s onwards, the immediate family members began to come in the UK. In later years, marriages back home also created opportunities for both brides and grooms to come to the UK. Marriage preference was always has been for home country brides and grooms for maintaining homogeneity and preserving the traditional ancestral culture. As mentioned earlier, they sent money to buy especially landed properties back in Bangladesh. The purpose or the thought behind that phenomenon was that when they will go back to Bangladesh these properties will provide them with financial securities. The result of this could be observed if someone visits especially the greater Sylhet region. Many empty palatial structures or buildings could be seen standing there built by the people living in the UK with their hard earned money.Realities and mindsets began to change with growing up of the children of the migrant families. They had to be sent to educational institutions for studies. In the beginning, parents with little or no education were very reluctant to send and continue the education of their children beyond the school or the secondary level. This was true especially for the girls. They thought that higher education will alienate their children from the Bengali culture and tradition. But the educated parents preferred for higher education for their children wherever it was possible. However, with education a new breed of people emerged. This new generation equipped with British education, technical knowledge and training are pursuing professional careers, becoming physicians, IT management specialists, teachers and many entering into various businesses. They are also tying marriage knots with people coming from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. It appears that with the passage of time and changing situations the ground realities for the British Bangladeshis have also changed or changing. From the beginning of the 90s, they began to realise that perhaps they cannot go back to Bangladesh. Even if the parents can go back but their children grown up in UK environment are not willing to go back to Bangladesh which has become a quite alien place for them. They feel more at home in the UK than in Bangladesh. The first generation of the immigrants still has profound mental attachments with their ancestral homeland, Bangladesh. Interesting thing about them is that whoever came at what time or year, could be 60s, 70s or 80s, their mental state remained static to that particular time or period especially with respect to Bangladesh. It seems that they fail to grasps the changes and developments that have happened in Bangladesh. Their mindset in this regard is static and fixed with the time of their migration to the UK. They are more concerned about what is going on in Bangladesh having no or very little concern for their adopted county. They are also politically divided according to the political parties of Bangladesh. However, now they are fully convinced that they are to remain in the UK for the rest of their lives because of their children and benefits offered by the British government especially for the older or aging people. On the other hand, the younger generation has no or very little concern for Bangladesh as they feel alien to the country of their parents’ origin. They consider UK as their home and try to integrate with its system and the society. In the coming years, it will be interesting to see especially how the second generation of the Bangladeshi migrants act or perform as British citizens in the United Kingdom.
(Different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude).
The writer is a columnist and Professor, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka and Member, National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh.