New Migrants (1990s Onwards)
Very little is known about migrants from Bangladesh who have arrived in Britain in recent years. The numbers are comparatively small – a recent report by the Institute of Public Policy Research (2005) notes that there were only 900 Bangladesh-born migrants arriving in the UK between 1990 and 2004. 53.5% of them were male and over 90% were under the age of 45. Of these, around 60% were aged 25-44, which suggests that they were arriving because of marriage or for work. Nearly 6% were students. In recent years, changes in immigration legislation have made entry into the UK increasingly difficult, particularly for marriage and work purposes, and this is likely to have a serious impact on the Bangladeshi community here. However, our research shows people arriving in this period as brides (see Aleya Parveen,) and grooms, as students, as asylum seekers, as high skilled migrants and as illegal workers.
Sabina Begum (Oldham)
As with Aleya, Sabina Begum came to Britain as a bride, arriving in 1999. She told us about her initial feelings of loneliness:
I left my family behind. My younger brothers were very young at that time; the first year it was difficult to survive without them. I always thought about them, I did not feel good without them.
Her early impressions of Oldham were not good:
At first I found it very shocking. When I knew I was going to come to this country, I thought it would be very nice, very beautiful, but when I came I realised that I had the wrong impression. Initially I did not like this country, but I got used to it. Now it isn't good or bad. You have to change with time. I have four children now, so all those other things do not matter any more. My life is with my two sons and two daughters. I've got used to it.
Having a number of relatives living locally has helped her feel more at home, a very different situation from women who had migrated previously:
I have relatives here. I go to their houses. I have one aunt and four uncles here, all of them in Oldham. I have one aunt from my father's side in Birmingham… All my relatives are here apart from my mother and brother and sister in Bangladesh… I do miss them a lot. But after having my own children I have become very busy and miss them less than I used to.
Khaled Ahmed (Oldham)
Khaled Ahmed had moved to America when he was 18. He had travelled there on a student visa sponsored by his brother. He arrived in Britain in 2003. He reflected on the differences between US Bengalis and UK Bengalis:
One difference is that New York is faster than this country. About 90% of the Bengali community in the US came as immigrants. Here many Bengalis are third generation. They are almost like the English… In New York the people - they might come from Sylhet or another region - are educated. They have an educated background and some have studied there [in America]. The people who have come to this country are not all educated. Those are some of the differences.
He came to Britain because of his wife:
My wife is a British citizen and she didn't want to stay in America. We married in New York, but she wanted to come back here.
He originally came for three months to look after his twin sons who were born prematurely, but decided to stay. However, he prefers America:
There is more freedom over there. I like it. Every Bengali respects other Bengalis over there. They are all immigrants; I think that's why everybody understands [each other]. In this country there is a difference with those who are born and brought up here.
In the end, though, Khaled plans to return to Bangladesh:
I live here for financial reasons. When I am established and have enough money, then after 10 or 12 years I'll go back to Bangladesh and will settle over there. I won't come back here… I love my country. I've travelled to many countries, but I love nowhere more than my country.
Maruf has been living in London illegally since 2003. He had worked for a travel agency in Bangladesh and came for a visit before deciding to stay on when his visa expired. He told us:
I have definitely faced problems through not having legal status. The first problem was: there was always a fear inside me. I knew that no one in this country, not even the police, would say anything to me [i.e. check my immigration status]. I knew that, [but] the fear was about the job.
Since his arrival, Maruf has worked in a Bangladeshi restaurant. He continued:
I have worked in restaurants for four years. I worked under one owner for a long time because I had fears about being able to get another job. Most of the restaurant owners here are illiterate; their behaviour is like hotel owners in Bangladesh. The way a hotel owner treats a hotel boy or worker, that's how they behave. As I am illegal, I can't work anywhere else. I don't have other opportunities here; restaurant work is the only way. I have to do what the owner orders me to do. I have to move when they want me to move. If I don't do it, I'll have to change jobs. But what's the point? It's the same everywhere.
During our interview, Maruf said that he had decided to return to Bangladesh:
I have already made up my mind to go home in December… I am tired - mentally and physically. That's the basic reason. Money is not the issue. If I'm not healthy, mentally and physically, there's no point in the money. Also, my children are growing up in Bangladesh. It goes without saying that they miss me. They definitely miss me. And me - mentally, I am devastated. Living abroad without family for five years is very painful… After five years my mind and body have reached such a state that I sometimes can't say whether I am alive or not.
Maruf went home to Bangladesh in December 2008.
Abul Hashem (Newham)
Abul Hashem arrived as an asylum seeker from Bangladesh in 1994. He told us:
At home, I was a journalist and I was also involved with politics. Working as a journalist, I had problems with the government… My life was under threat. I was getting death threats in 1993. The ruling party's activists attacked me on several occasions. I filed a case against them but did not get any result from the court. Then I decided to leave the country. When I came here, I applied for political asylum. The Home Office accepted my application for political asylum and gave me unlimited leave to remain. I got married within a year.
Abul has been working in the restaurant trade since his arrival.
Work in restaurants is for those who have no place to go – they work in Indian restaurants. There is no future for people who work in Indian restaurants. The work is very hard. It's not enjoyable. There are many problems with the owners… They are narrow minded… During working hours they will be after you; they are tight in allocating food, the have a tight attitude about salaries. In every way, they treat you in a disrespectful way.
He has also found the environment in Newham, where he lives, to be very hostile:
The racists, basically young people, would swear at me whenever I went out of my house. They would throw stones at my house. They physically attacked me several times… Many Bangladeshi families have been attacked by the racists… They become mad when they see any Asians. They do not like Asians. I don't know why but they hate Asians.
Fazilatunnessa (Tower Hamlets)
Although aged 67 when she was interviewed in 2008, Fazilatunnessa migrated recently to Britain to join her husband, arriving in 2003. Her husband has been settled here since the 1960s. She told us:
He came here during the Pakistan period [when Bangladesh was still East Pakistan]. He came with a voucher visa. Everyone applied for the voucher; those who were lucky got visas… After he came here, it was some time before he brought us. At first, he didn't want to bring us to this country; he said this country was bad.
Her husband would return home to Bangladesh every few years and in the meantime would send letters. Fazilatunessa could not write herself:
In the old days, a letter was the only way to communicate. He used to write letters. We also wrote letters to him… My daughters would write the letters or my brothers… It would take a long time to receive a letter, like 15 to 20 days, sometimes a month.
Fazilatunnessa herself was reluctant to come to Britain:
At first, I didn't want to come, I didn't agree to come. Then because of my daughter I came to this country… The other children did not get permission - only this one got permission to come. So I brought her here… I left my son and another daughter behind.
Although she plans to bring her other daughter on a visit visa and arrange her marriage so that she can stay, her adopted son is a more complicated and painful issue:
His mother died a couple of days after his birth and his father died a couple of years later. When they took his dead body to the graveyard, the boy's uncle brought him to me and since then I am his mother. I wanted to look after the boy, as I didn't have a son… He is a lovely boy… I haven't told him about what happened because he would be hurt...They [the Immigration authorities] asked me to submit papers to show that I have adopted him. I hope they will give him a visa soon because we have submitted all the papers they required.
Fazilatunnessa likes living in Tower Hamlets because,
It's almost Bangladesh. There are mosques everywhere so people can pray.
But she also misses home:
I live here now, but the soil of my country calls me. I miss my family members. I cry for them sometimes.
Shaila Sharif Mou (Tower Hamlets)
Shaila Sharif Mou came to Britain in 1999 with her husband who is a computer engineer and travelled as a high skilled migrant. She said:
My husband came with a job in 1997. His company advertised jobs in a newspaper in Bangladesh. My husband and his friends had just completed their Masters degree. They applied for the jobs, not seriously, and my husband and one of his friends got jobs… I could have come two years earlier, but I was studying… So I didn't want to come and my son was also very young. When my studies were completed and my son was older, I was ready to come.
Another reason for the move was because her son is a wheelchair user with a rare medical condition:
When we saw my son's problems we hurried to come to London. We decided not to go back because of my son's treatment. The facilities he is getting here won't be available in Bangladesh. Honestly, he will be in agony in our country. The doctors will give him the wrong treatment; they don't know anything about the disease.
Shaila Sharif Mou works as a teaching assistant in a local school, but had some concerns about the local Bengali community in Tower Hamlets:
The language of Tower Hamlets is Sylheti. But I don't understand or speak Sylheti… I can't communicate with the local people in Tower Hamlets. When I took a job at the school, it was terrible. The Bengalis didn't talk with me. When they brought their children to the school gate, they wouldn't give them to me. They would give their children to another person. Maybe it was because I didn't follow their dress code – I wear trousers, a T-shirt and no scarf. They didn't talk with me easily… After five or six months, they started coming to me. They said their children talked about me a lot. Gradually the Bengalis became more relaxed with me. Before that they treated me worse than the English did!
Monsur Ahmed (Colchester)
My brother wanted this because there was nobody from our family in a foreign country. We had nobody in any European country. So my brother decided that at least one of us should go to a European country.
Although traditionally it is the bride who moves to the groom's family home, Monsur was happy to move in with his in-laws:
It is a tradition of our country that when people come to a foreign country they take shelter in relatives' houses. You may be clever in your country, but in a foreign country, you are a fool. When you first move, you have to take help from other Bengalis. If you have relatives it will be more convenient for you.
As with many new male arrivals, Monsur worked in the restaurant trade, in his wife's family restaurant. He asked:
Where else should I go? Wherever I look, there are restaurants. All the Bengalis work in restaurants. All newcomers go to the restaurant and even old people are also in the restaurant trade. I worked there for eight years. After that, I saw a Bengali driving a taxi, and I decided to drive a taxi, too.
He commented further:
This country is a country of three Ws – weather, women and work: the weather cannot be predicted, the women cannot be believed and work cannot be guaranteed. You can lose your job at any time – you start today and tonight the owner comes and tells you to look for another job from next week. But you don't need to worry – you can get another job over the phone.
However, this is not the future he wants for his children:
I don't want my children to work in the restaurant business. I want my children to be educated and then do a job in a suitable field. Restaurant jobs are for those who have no other option.