• Monday, Jun 27, 2022
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World Population Day: Untangling the unprecedented reverse migration trend

  • Published at 09:40 pm July 10th, 2021
File Photo: According to a recent survey, average monthly household income declined from Tk24,565 before the shutdown began to Tk7,096 in May due to Covid-19 pandemic Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Lack of income during the pandemic has forced many to return to rural areas, but the government is yet to take notice of these ‘new poor’

Mohammad Lablu, 45, has been a driver by profession in the Agrabad area of Chittagong at a private company for the past 12 years. He had to leave his job in June 2020, as the company furloughed its staff due to Covid-19. 

Lablu now lives in his hometown in Pakundia of Kishoreganj, earning daily wages as an electrician. 

A family of five is thus drastically downgraded into economic misery from a stable-wage earner family. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought an array of tribulations affecting people like Lablu. 

Migration is a very common phenomenon in the context of Bangladesh as people tend to move from one place to another in search of better opportunities. 

The usual trend is people migrating from rural to urban areas generally in search of jobs, good education, or compelled by natural disasters. The country has witnessed a reverse migration trend from urban to rural areas during different times of the pandemic, especially before the lockdowns. 

Reduced economic opportunity forcing migration 

It is almost impossible to survive in big cities like Dhaka or Chittagong without any income, especially when people live hand to mouth. This results in a mad rush of people for their hometowns or villages before every lockdown.

Globally, especially in the low-income countries, 119 to 124 million people were pushed into poverty in 2020, according to a World Bank estimate. 

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Despite holding the official title of a “Developing Nation” the situation is no different for Bangladesh; rather it is worse than that of many other developing nations. 

A lot of discussion goes on regarding the fragile health sector amid the pandemic, but not everyone is aware of the economic turmoil caused by the consecutive lockdowns, which shattered countless families - especially those who belong in the informal sector.

Migration trend in 2020

The latest Bangladesh Sample Vital Statistics report produced by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) shows that outward migration from urban areas was more than that of the rural areas in 2020.

That year, around 37.4 people per 1,000 people had entered the rural areas compared to the 36.4 people who had left among every 1,000 people. The migration from the urban areas is also slightly higher than the rate of in-migration, which is in stark inconsistency with previous years. 

In 2019, out-migration from the urban areas was 114.5 people per 1,000 in comparison with 117.1 in-migration per 1,000 people. On the other hand, rural areas saw a higher rate of out-migration of 39.1 per 1,000 than in-migration of 36.5 per 1,000 in 2019, as expected. 

Dhaka division has witnessed the highest number of out-migration - 111.8 per 1,000 people and the in-migration rate was 102.9 per 1,000 people. Along with Dhaka, the major divisions, such as Chittagong, Khulna, Mymensingh and Sylhet also had a stark rise in in-migration rather than out. 

In total, this year 69.2 people per 1,000 have migrated to rural areas in comparison with the 68.8 per 1,000 migration in the urban areas.

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When asked why the Covid-19 situation was not addressed as a reason for the migrations in the SVRS report, Project Director of Monitoring the Situation of Vital Statistics of Bangladesh (MSVSB) and Joint Director of BBS AKM Ashraful Haque said: “Incorporating data related to Covid-19 does not fall into our survey objective. We only produce data; it’s up to the data researchers and users to find out why they migrated. “

“Complete news research, with different questionnaires and survey analysis, are needed to address impacts related to Covid,” he added.

Although the report does not address the Covid-19 pandemic, Mohammad Mainul Islam, migration expert and professor of the Population Science department of the University of Dhaka said: “The indicators like ‘to join the family,’ ‘in search of a job’ even ‘matrimony’ [in the report] indirectly point to Covid-19 as the reason behind the unusual migration that has been taking place since last year.”

“Out-migration is also higher for people who have come to join their families because of not being able to survive in their employment locations. This way, at least they can ensure food on their plates. It is almost impossible for people of low socio-economic background to survive in the cities.”

On the verge of major economic imbalance 

As a mainstream phenomenon, people migrate from rural to urban areas in search of good fortune. But according to experts, the reverse is not considered a good sign as rural areas do not have the capacity to provide facilities to such a huge population.

Selim Raihan, executive director of the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (Sanem) and professor of Economics at the University of Dhaka said: “The urban areas are highly concentrated zones of informal workers, who are the most affected by the pandemic. But this reverse migration is putting additional pressure on the rural labour market, which is already over capacitated. 

The people who migrated from the urban areas were mostly employed in the daily labour or service sector - whereas there is no demand for these kinds of jobs in the rural areas.”

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A South Asian Network on Economic Modelling (SANEM) survey published in March 2021 stated that around 49% of pandemic-hit internal migrants returned to their roots last year due to massive job cuts, non-payment of wages and decreased salary. 

“Reverse migration is a coping strategy; it never brings any good economic outcome because it is one kind of forced migration. And forced migration leads to a collapsing market economy,” he added.

Possibility of turning into permanent migration 

Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal said at this year’s budget session in parliament that the government did not have any official data on the new poor and that is why this section of the population is being deprived of any government stimulus.

“Rapid Assessment: Needs And Vulnerabilities Of Internal And International Return Migrants In Bangladesh” a survey report published by the International Organization of Migration (IOM), claims that around 72% of Covid-19 affected internal migrant returnees did not receive any assistance from the government. 

When asked whether reverse migration could turn into a permanent migration, Professor Mohammad Mainul replied: “For any migration to be considered as permanent migration the person must reside at a certain place for at least six months. 

“The BBS should have incorporated countrywide gross migration resulting from Covid-19 only in its report. It could even have opted for separate research as it has the resources and network to do so.”

Selim Raihan of Sanem opined that the chances of permanent migration solely depended on economic recovery. One section of people who had migrated would come back for better opportunities, but if the recovery process took longer, another section would definitely reside in the migrated areas permanently.

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