Beyond dichotomies: Bangladesh’s complex migration landscape

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2023 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The essay’s authors, Dr Ashraful Azad is Adjunct Lecturer at the University of New South Wales’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, and Jennifer Vallentine specialises in migration and refugee rights issues with a focus on Asia and the Pacific and the Middle East.

For many of the millions who migrate from Bangladesh, the distinction between “regular” and “irregular” is far from clear cut and people may move from the former to the latter category without even realising it. And although exploitation is commonly associated exclusively with irregular journeys, many Bangladeshis departing their country along legal pathways may also find themselves subjected to a range of abuses.


Bangladesh represents the sixth-largest migrant sending country in the world, with more than 7.4 million of its citizens—roughly 4.4 percent of the total population— residing overseas. Even after a decade of rapid economic development, migration remains a pillar of the country’s economy, thanks in large part to remittances sent home from citizens abroad, which have topped $20 billion—or about five percent of GDP—annually for the past three years. Simultaneously the country is experiencing rapid urbanisation and internal migration, while it also plays host to one of the largest refugee populations in the world, sheltering nearly one million Rohingya from Myanmar in makeshift settlements around Cox’s Bazaar.

For the most part, migration from Bangladesh is primarily regular in nature, with large numbers pursuing temporary and lower-skilled labour mobility pathways to countries in the Gulf, a trend that gained momentum after the 1970s oil boom. Other notable destinations encompass countries in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia and Singapore, to where growing numbers of Bangladeshis travel to work in key industries such as palm oil, manufacturing and the service sectors. Some skilled labour and student migration occurs towards the Global North, although these avenues are limited and reserved for those from primarily affluent families.

Alongside these established regular pathways exist well-travelled irregular migration routes from Bangladesh. Historically, these routes have included cross-border movements from Bangladesh to India, irregular maritime journeys from Bangladesh to Malaysia, Indonesia and onward to Australia, and routes into the Gulf states. More recently, however, increasing numbers of Bangladeshis have been seen along mixed migration routes to Europe, including the Central Mediterranean Route through Libya and onward towards Italy, as well as (to a lesser extent) the Eastern Mediterranean route and the Balkans Route. Across the Atlantic, Bangladeshis are also more prevalent on routes crossing from Central into North America. Yet, while the phenomenon of irregular migration among Bangladeshis is relatively common, there is still much that is unknown about these movements.

Regardless of whether Bangladeshis migrate regularly or irregularly, there are consistent and cross-cutting themes that shape many migration experiences. These include a heavy reliance on well-established networks of informal intermediaries and the pervasive exploitation that permeates the experience of most Bangladeshis. These factors, among others, mean that the lines between the categories of irregular and regular migration are often blurred, with a level of fluidity existing between migration statuses. For many Bangladeshi migrants, even when journeys commence through regular channels, they can quickly devolve knowingly or unknowingly into irregularity due to a variety of factors, such as protracted legal processes, visa expirations, deception by unscrupulous intermediaries and generally changing circumstances.

This essay explores the phenomenon of irregular migration among Bangladeshi migrants, while also unravelling the common threads that weave together both regular and irregular migration out of the country.

Drivers of outward migration from Bangladesh

Migration from Bangladesh is driven by a complex interplay of factors. A significant driving force is systemic inequalities which, despite consistent improvements in the country’s Human Development Index ranking in recent years, has meant that many Bangladeshis have not reaped the benefits. Access to meaningful employment opportunities and to essential services such as education, healthcare and other basic amenities remains a challenge, particularly for women. As a result, in 2022, almost one million Bangladeshis opted to seek opportunities abroad, where improved living conditions, higher wages and brighter futures for themselves and their families are eagerly anticipated.

Adding to this complexity is Bangladesh’s mounting vulnerability to the adverse effects of climate change, including frequent and devastating natural hazards such as cyclones, floods and rising sea levels. These challenges are increasingly disrupting traditional livelihoods and rendering some regions less habitable. The resulting urbanisation is also likely adding to increasing pressure on resources in city centres, which may lead some people to give more consideration to migration as a longer-term survival strategy.

While Bangladesh has experienced the political instability that is common among many post-colonial countries in the Global South, it is primarily considered a “safe country”, resulting in very few Bangladeshis being recognised as refugees in countries of asylum. Those who do claim asylum abroad include opposition activists targeted by the ruling Awami League party, which has been accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, as well as LGBTQI+ activists and atheist bloggers who have been subject to violent attacks by fundamentalist groups due to their allegedly defamatory comments against Islam.

An overview of irregular migration from Bangladesh

While the majority of migration from Bangladesh is regular in nature, there exist well-established and increasingly popular irregular migration routes out of the country that span the globe. These routes facilitate access for Bangladeshis to temporary labour migration in neighbouring countries, as well as locations within Southeast Asia and the Gulf states. Many who use these routes do so in the hope of fulfilling dreams of longer-term residency and eventual citizenship in countries in the Global North.

Irregular migration within Asia and the Gulf States

In 1947 the British government, through Partition, arbitrarily divided millions of families and communities in the Indian subcontinent with the creation of what is now the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, leading to a relatively porous border between Bangladesh and India. Irregular crossings over this border have become common, mostly by people living in the border regions, many of whom engage in lower-skilled seasonal labour migration. In recent decades, however, Hindu nationalist governments in India have increasingly sought to politicise the issue of irregular migration from Muslim-majority Bangladesh to India. This has involved imposing violent border restrictions, including erecting thousands of miles of barbed wire fences and shooting those who try to cross. Because of these sensitivities, there are no reliable estimates of the number of migrants, and Hindutva leaders often dramatise the scale of the phenomenon in political speeches.

Within Southeast Asia, it is estimated that tens of thousands of Bangladeshis reside in Malaysia with irregular status. While many enter regularly before slipping into this irregularity, maritime routes have historically facilitated irregular entries into Malaysia, including of Bangladeshis. Over in the Gulf, Bangladeshis also constitute a significant number of the irregular migrants in Saudi Arabia, as well as in Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

 Irregular migration to Europe

Regular migration pathways to the Global North are limited for most Bangladeshis, with only the more affluent in a position to pursue skilled-labour and student visas. As a result, irregular migration routes to countries in Europe and North America have also been increasing in popularity in recent years.

In 2022 the number of Bangladeshis arriving in Europe (16,487), more than doubled compared to 2021. Both this year to date, as well as in 2022, Bangladeshis were the fifth most common nationality of arrivals to Europe along mixed migration routes. Smugglers along these routes also reportedly offer Bangladeshis assistance to find employment in destination countries, sometimes resulting in situations of extreme exploitation and often blurring the distinctions between smuggling and trafficking.

The Central Mediterranean Route, via Libya, is the most frequented irregular route into Europe among Bangladeshis. In 2022, 15,228 Bangladeshis reached Italy by sea, making up approximately 14 percent of all arrivals in Italy (up from five percent 2019), and representing the third most common nationality to enter Italy. As of December 2022, there were also 21,653 migrants from Bangladesh in Libya, some of whom will be en route to Europe, with over 2,000 having been detained in horrendous conditions throughout the year.

According to IOM, the majority of Bangladeshis moving through Libya on the Central Mediterranean route previously transit countries such as Türkiye and the UAE, with lesser numbers travelling through Egypt or directly from Bangladesh itself. Almost all Bangladeshis in Libya (93 percent) report having travelled via air to get there, with the average cost paid to smugglers for reaching Italy exceeding $8,000—twice the amount they would have to pay to migrate as temporary workers through regular pathways to countries like Malaysia. Anecdotal evidence also indicates that the cost of irregular migration into Europe can be much higher, with upwards of €16,000 reportedly paid by some.

However, unlike most Bangladeshis pursuing temporary labour migration within Asia and the Gulf states, Bangladeshis who migrate irregularly to Italy are often looking in the longer-term to regularise their stay and secure permanent residency. Italy, a country with perceived relative openness to foreigners, has the largest population of Bangladeshis in Europe—around 150,000—many of whom work in the agriculture, shipbuilding and small business sectors. Bangladeshis interviewed by journalists have indicated these are some of the factors which inform their decision-making around Italy as their intended destination.

Alongside the Central Mediterranean route, smaller numbers have been recorded arriving in Europe through the Western Mediterranean and Western Balkans routes.

Irregular migration to North America

Comparatively less is known about the irregular migration of Bangladeshis through Latin America and towards the US and Canada. Existing research indicates that arrivals of refugees and migrants from Asia, particularly from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal, have increased since 2016. There are no clear figures for the number of Bangladeshis irregularly entering the US via Latin America. However, in January 2023, eight percent of entries in Panama via Darién Gap region were from Asia, including from Bangladesh.

Anecdotal reports indicate that many irregular journeys towards North America involve protracted transit and periods of involuntary immobility where migrants arrange and finance the next section of their journey. Transit locations for journeys to Latin America by Bangladeshis include the UAE and countries in Africa, including Ethiopia, Ghana and the Gambia. Entry to Latin America is usually via air to Brazil where onward travel is facilitated by local smugglers and can involve a mix of plane, road and boat travel to North America. The costs for these journeys are reportedly high, ranging from €16,000 to €33,000, according to one source.

Irregular vs regular. Blurred lines and commonalities

The complexity and extent of Bangladeshi movements result in many journeys incorporating both regular and irregular components. Certain countries, such as the UAE, with relatively relaxed temporary and transit visas for Bangladeshis, serve as launchpads for irregular journeys to European and North American destinations. Notably, Dubai already serves as a major hub for Bangladeshi migrant workers, offering plenty of social support for the temporary stay of those journeying further afield. These longer journeys towards the Global North are far from straightforward, with no guarantee of reaching intended destinations. Consequently, many Bangladeshis find themselves stranded in transit, sometimes deceived and/or deserted by their agents, leading to a limbo of irregular status.

The common practice of using counterfeit and fraudulent documents arranged by intermediaries in Bangladesh or en route also precipitates irregular movements. And while journeys may start with travel on valid passports, they may later involve the use of fake documents to cover one or more specific segments.

The fluidity of migrants’ statuses after arrival in destination countries also underscores these complexities. Migrants who initially arrive through regular pathways can transition into irregular status, albeit sometimes unknowingly, as arrangements for their visas and/or work permits are often made by intermediaries or employers. Even when migrants arrive and live in a destination country possessing a valid visa, irregularity may also derive from engagement in informal work or work in sectors that are not among those permitted by their visas.

In addition to the fluidity between regular and irregular migration among Bangladeshis, there are also major commonalities in the experiences of Bangladeshis across the migration spectrum. Chief among them are a reliance on informal intermediaries or smugglers and—often consequently—a widespread subjection to extreme exploitation.

Reliance on intermediaries within Bangladesh

The sheer volume of Bangladeshis pursuing labour migration opportunities abroad has spawned a complex market of private recruitment agencies. The Bangladeshi government requires these agencies to register with the Bangladeshi Association of International Recruitment Agencies in order to regulate the market. However, as migration agents and recruitment agencies are primarily located in major cities, and thus inaccessible to the majority of migrants coming from rural areas, they rely heavily on middlemen or informal brokers, locally known as dalals. As well as linking migrants with registered agents and recruitment agencies, some dalals also provide a “full package” of other services themselves, including passport applications, health checks, emigration clearances, airport transfers and advising on pre-departure formalities. In some cases, they may also help migrants secure a loan from formal or informal moneylenders to finance their journeys.

Dalals operate informally outside of the regulatory framework, with most migrants who use them unaware that they are officially migrating under the aegis of an entirely different (licensed) agent. As both regular and irregular migration from Bangladesh is intertwined with the activities of these informal brokers, a significant part of legal migration processes involves irregular and informal practices.

Along with facilitating regular migration, dalals may also directly facilitate irregular migration to, for example, Europe, North America, the Gulf States and Malaysia. The facilitation of irregular migration across multiple international borders requires sophisticated, transnational collaboration between licensed agents, informal brokers and corrupt government officials at home and abroad. Given these dynamics, it is no surprise that Bangladesh is consistently perceived as being among the most corrupt countries in the world.

Exploitation in Bangladesh

Due to this combination of informality, a lack of regulation and high levels of corruption, exploitation resulting from the practices of intermediaries within Bangladeshis is frequent. Dalals commonly charge exorbitant fees— as high as $3,000 per migrant— to provide access to regular work opportunities abroad. Fees are even higher for irregular journeys spanning greater distances, which opens the door to exploitation even prior to departure from Bangladesh. To fund these exorbitant costs, prospective migrants may have no option but to sell their property or to take out unsustainable loans that often lead to situations of debt bondage whereby, once they reach a destination country, the majority of their earnings go to servicing their debts.

Furthermore, according to Bangladeshi law, recruitment agencies are also responsible for procuring work permits from employers in destination countries. In most cases, the prospective employer is supposed to cover various migration costs, such as airfares and visa fees. However, in practice, especially concerning migration to the Gulf states, this is seldom the case, as such costs are illegally passed on to migrants. Agencies also engage in ”visa-trading”, competing amongst themselves to “buy” work permits before “selling” them on to migrants at inflated prices. Consequently, many Bangladeshi migrants arrive in destination countries to find themselves working for a totally different employer to what they had expected, under a suite of exploitative pre-determined conditions that leave them receiving little, if any, of their pay.

As a result of this exploitation, intermediaries within Bangladesh often carry negative connotations. However, despite this, at a societal level, intermediaries are perceived to provide a necessary function within the migration landscape of Bangladesh. This is rooted in the recognition that there exist both “good” brokers who genuinely assist migrants to achieve their migration goals, as well as “bad” brokers who seek to exploit them.

Exploitation in destination countries

Experiences of exploitation and abuse follow Bangladeshi migrants through transit and into destination countries with frequent reports of physical abuse, excessive work hours, wage theft and unsafe working conditions tantamount to modern-day slavery. Specifically across the Middle East, Bangladeshis, alongside other migrant workers, live under the exploitative kafala system, which attaches migrants’ work permits and visas to their local sponsor, or kafeel, who is usually their employer. Under this system, migrants must work for a particular kafeel for the whole duration of their visa’s validity period, meaning that it is virtually impossible to leave an employer, even if the employer is exploitative or abusive. Any complaint against the employer may lead to job loss, irregularity, then arrest and deportation. This is particularly concerning for Bangladeshi female domestic workers, who often live in isolation at their employer’s residence, where they may face a range of exploitations, including restrictions on their movements and confiscation of their passport, as well as physical and sexual violence. Moreover, domestic workers are not covered by labour laws in many countries in the Middle East, leaving them even more vulnerable to exploitation.

Understanding the common experiences of exploitation across the migration spectrum is important, given that exploitation is often viewed as a phenomenon specific to irregular migration. As detailed above, in the context of Bangladesh, exploitation is in fact more generalised, with many migrants finding themselves in exploitative conditions despite having undertaken regular migration journeys. The pervasiveness of exploitation counters widely held assumptions that regular migration automatically guarantees increased protections for migrants and reinforces the need for additional protective mechanisms.

Efforts to address exploitation fall short

In recognition of the prevalence of unscrupulous migration practices within Bangladesh, the government has taken certain regulatory steps, with a particular focus on recruitment procedures. Domestically, legislative measures, such as the Overseas Employment and Migrants Act 2013, have been established to safeguard the rights of migrants and regulate key actors, including intermediaries and recruitment and migration agents. Other efforts have included the vigorous implementation of the Human Trafficking Act 2012, which has been used to combat the influence of informal intermediaries who facilitate irregular maritime migration to destinations such as Malaysia. However, some believe these actions have been motivated by external pressures from other countries looking to curb irregular migration to their borders.

Outside the jurisdiction of Bangladesh, a noticeable gap exists in frameworks to protect Bangladeshis, particularly in destination countries. While bilateral agreements have been forged between Bangladesh and receiving countries, they seldom result in a decrease in the number of reported abuses abroad, especially throughout the Middle East. While diplomatic endeavours to advocate for protections for migrants in destination countries continue, they often fall significantly short. This can be attributed, in part, to concerns that excessive pressure on destination countries may be too risky, resulting in reduced demand for migrants amidst competition from other sending countries.


Bangladesh has emerged as a significant source of international migrants, with millions seeking better opportunities abroad, predominantly as temporary labour migrants in the Gulf States and Southeast Asia and, more recently, as students, skilled workers and asylum seekers in the Global North.

The complex landscape of migration from Bangladesh reveals a multifaceted interplay between regularity and irregularity driven by economic, social and political factors. While the majority of migrants follow regular channels, irregular migration is still pursued by many. Moreover, the distinction between regular and irregular migration is often blurred as migrants move between categories along their journeys and in destination countries, sometimes unknowingly.

Systemic exploitation, perpetuated by informal recruitment processes, the reliance on intermediaries, a culture of impunity, corruption and a lack of legal protections, prevails in many Bangladeshis’ migration experiences, be they regular or irregular. This highlights the need for comprehensive migration governance that takes into account the vulnerability of migrants across the migration spectrum, as well as the importance of acknowledging the broader context of informality and corruption that underpins much of Bangladesh’s migration processes.

In Bangladesh, fertility and poverty rates have fallen dramatically in recent decades, contributing to a 66.5 percent increase in the country’s Human Development Index value between 1990 and 2021. But these improvements are offset by growing income inequality and inflation which reduce the benefits experienced by many of the country’s 170 million inhabitants. These challenges are compounded annually by multiple extreme weather events linked to climate change, to which Bangladesh is the seventh most vulnerable country in the world. The impacts of these events, such as potentially catastrophic levels of land loss in low-lying areas, erosion, flooding, cyclones and intolerable temperatures, are likely to exacerbate migratory pressures. Unlike in some larger, more geographically diverse climate-affected countries, there are few options in Bangladesh for internal migration, not least because of the poor economic prospects in high-density urban centres ill-equipped to sustainably accommodate large numbers of people displaced from rural areas. For many, cross-border movement to nearby countries and, for those who can afford it, countries further afield will likely become an even more essential lifeline. What we have seen to date is likely only a foretaste of what we can expect in the coming years.