In Quest of Modernity or Survival? Bangladeshi Immigrants in Portugal

by Faisal Bin Majid

A Bangladeshi restaurant in Rua do Bem Formoso. Author: Faisal Bin Majid

Author’s note:
In the past 20 years, Southern European countries including Italy, Spain, and Portugal have become a popular destination for Bangladeshi migrants. Currently, more than 4,500 of them live in Portugal. This article is an attempt to explain the trend and the reasons behind choosing Portugal as a destination by an increasing number of Bangladeshi youth.

This write-up is based on my personal observation and participation in the social life of Bangladeshi community in Lisbon, while I stayed there for a Master’s semester in 2016. At the same time, study reports on Bangladeshi community in Portugal have been useful to obtain more insights and correlate my observation findings.

New faces show up almost every week. While standing on the street or sitting in a restaurant of Rua do Bem Formoso in Matrim Moniz areas of Lisbon, I have often found the just arrived newcomers with big luggage. In their mid-twenties, most of these young, educated Bangladeshi males are coming here from the UK.

The trend has started in the last few years. Without a visa, they first ‘manage’ to reach Paris by a lorry, then they take a bus to arrive to Lisbon. They had spent several years in London as students with a part-time work permit. For some of these students, the main reason to enroll in a college was to stay in the UK as long as it was required to get a residence permit. After certain rules became restricted by the British Government, such as the elimination of part-time work opportunity for further education (FE) for students from outside the European Union, and the obligation to leave the country at the conclusion of their studies, some of them are going back to Bangladesh. Others intend to escape deportation by moving to other European countries. Currently, Portugal is a popular destination, offering a better opportunity for legalizing their status than other destinations such as Italy, Spain and France. For these Bangladeshi young men, reaching Portugal is a temporary move to obtain papers.

Documents needed for the Portuguese residence permit is the issue of the most concern for these immigrants. It is the first gateway to stay legally in Portugal or elsewhere in Europe and then gradually obtain eligibility to become a European citizen. To get a residence permit, one first needs to have an employment or business to pay taxes. Most of the newly arrived undocumented immigrants get a job in restaurants or shops owned by other Bangladeshis. However, as the demand for the job has increased, especially after the immigration restriction policies in the UK, many of the newly arrived need to wait for months to get a suitable job. Given the unfavorable demand-supply situation for the employees, they are constrained to accept low paid wages. Those who have good amounts of savings earned from working in the UK for several years, try to open their own business.

In Rua do Bem Formoso, small gatherings of Bangladeshi young men can be spotted all day long, hanging around on the street corner or in a cafe. They are the newcomers, waiting for a job contract or suitable business. Their number is increasing after the restriction in the UK and also in other European countries such as Italy.

While analyzing the reasons behind Bangladeshi’s migration to Portugal, it is relevant to examine the economic and social profile of these migrants’ families back home. A study (Mapril 2014) shows that Bangladeshi immigrants in Portugal are from new and affluent middle class category from both rural and urban context with considerable educational background. Several graduated from college then completed university degrees in subjects such as Political Science, Design, Engineering, Architecture, Sociology, Philosophy and Human Resources, and most are fluent in English. Compared to other destinations of Bangladeshi migrants, such as  Middle East and Gulf countries and Southeast Asia, coming to Europe required four to five times higher investment. To afford this expense, one has to belong to the middle-class category. Thirty two million people in Bangladesh are now in this category that comprises 20 percent of the total population (The Daily Star, 6 November 2015).

Bangladeshi immigrants in Portugal come from families who have properties and/or own a business. Many of them are entrepreneurs in the industry of ready-made garments, electronics goods, transportation, construction or they own a boutique or a restaurant. Other members of their family in Bangladesh work in high paying jobs in private or state owned organizations, companies and banks. Analyzing the social and economic background of Bangladeshi migrants in Italy, Rahman and Kabir (2012) concluded that Bangladeshis who choose to migrate to European countries have higher educational credentials than those who are seeking temporary employment in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. According to their study, 60 percent of migrants were employed before their migration to Italy. This finding is similar for Bangladeshi migrants in other Southern European countries including Spain and Portugal.

Considering the class difference between those who migrate to the Middle East or Southeast Asian countries and those to Europe, the motivation is not the same. For the first category, motivation can be explained through the neoclassical theory that ‘understands migration to be driven by differences in returns to labor across markets, by geographic differences in labor supply and demand and the resulting differentials in wages between labor-rich versus capital-rich countries’ (Kurekova 2011). The reasons behind short term labor migration to Middle East and Southeast Asian countries arises from the motivation to earn more, better consumption and thus ‘challenging the social hierarchy’ (Rao 2014).

According to King and Knights (1994, cited in Rahman and Kabir 2012), Bangladeshi emigration to Italy developed as a ‘form of migratory opportunism provoked by the basic push forces back home and by lax entry controls and regularization drives in Italy’. The flexibility in entry control and the regularization process is also a factor behind Bangladeshis coming to Portugal. Beyond this policy and regulation issues, Mapril (2014) analyzed the factor through considering the notion of ‘modernity’ inspired by authors such as Ferguson, Osella and Gardner, and Cooper, to whom modernity is a discursive formation, a ‘native’ category, related to the notions of ‘development’ and ‘progress’. He argued that migration to Europe or Northern countries is itself constitutive of young Bangladeshis’ middle class status. It is one of the ways for the members of the middle class try to present themselves as ‘modern’. Mapril elaborates:

For young Bangladeshi adults who now live and commute between Portugal and Bangladesh, it is geographic mobility that allows certain consumption practices which are essential in order to access the adhunik, the modern, but also to progress in one’s life-course. Migrating to Europe is seen as a way of achieving such dreams and expectations regarding one’s life…It is not only a resource that allows certain lifestyles and consumption but is also a discourse of prestige and distinction.

Mapril also emphasizes the larger context of the liberalization policies in Bangladesh that create difficulties in accessing labor market after finishing higher education. According to the statistics of the International Labour Organization (cited in Mapril, 2014), the highest unemployment rates were to be found among those aged between 20 and 30 years; and the higher their educational background, the higher the rate. For these segments, there is an increasing feeling of lack of opportunities and uncertain professional prospects. Thus, migration is perceived by young Bangladeshi middle class as a strategy to overcome their structural paradox in the labor market.

In my observation, the factor of ‘modernity’ may not carry much significance for those young adult immigrants coming from the urban areas of contemporary Bangladesh. In this era of information technology and satellite TV channel, the so-called culture of modernity got a globalized shape. Globalization has broken many barriers, especially in making consumer cultures accessible to people across social classes and statuses (Rao, ibid). Rather, uncertainty in getting the expected income in employment is the major factor behind the decision to migrate for young college graduates from Bangladesh.

I could refer to three of them, Sagor, Sajal and Arif who decided to migrate out of their frustration of getting proper salaried job consistent with their living standard. All came from Dhaka city and from well-off families. All of them completed their undergraduate studies in Bangladesh, then moved to the UK as students with the purpose of settling abroad. After facing restrictions in the UK, they diverted to Portugal to survive and secure papers. They cannot think of going back to Bangladesh for the scarcity of expected salaried job. However, the amount of wages in Portugal for undocumented immigrants barely serves for a minimum living. Neither it fulfills the dream of being ‘modern’, nor it is enough incremental compared to earnings in Bangladesh.


[1] Kurekova, L. (2011) Theories of migration: Conceptual review and empirical testing in the context of the EU East-West flows. Paper prepared for Interdisciplinary conference on Migration. Economic Change, Social Challenge. April 6-9, 2011, University College London

[2] Mapril, J. (2014) The Dreams of Middle Class: Consumption, Life-course and Migration Between Bangladesh and Portugal. Modern Asian Studies 48.3 (May 2014): 693-719

[3] Rahman, M. and Kabir, M. A. (2012) Bangladeshi migration to Italy: the family perspective. Asia Eur J 10:251–265.

[4] Rao, N. (2014) Migration, mobility and changing power relations: aspirations and praxis of Bangladeshi migrants. Gender, Place & Culture. 21:7, 872-887

[5] The Daily Star (2015) Bangladesh’s middle-class expanding. By 2025, one-fourth of population to be in middle-class income category, says BIDS study. 


Faisal Bin Majid
Faisal is a social worker in Bangladesh with a wide range of practical experience in NGOs promoting human rights of minorities, women and workers in Bangladesh and South Asia. He has recently obtained an Erasmus Mundus MA degree in Social Work offered by a consortium of five European universities.

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