According to government sources, temporary labour migration officially began in 1976. More than 7.1 million migrant workers are estimated to have been employed overseas between 1976 and 2010 (BMET 2011).

The number of migrants leaving Bangladesh averaged 250,000 a year between 2001 and 2005, rose to almost 400,000 in 2006, and then doubled to 832,600 in 2007. Overseas employment reached a record high in 2008, with 875,055 workers leaving the country through official channels. In 2009, overseas labour employment fell 47 per cent from the previous year, due in part to the global economic crisis. The annual flow slowed down even more in 2010, with about 390,000 workers leaving the country (figure 1).

In 2010, the main destination countries for migrant workers from Bangladesh were Bahrain, Lebanon, Oman, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. About 80 per cent of migrants who moved to Lebanon were women, a reflection of the increasing role of women migrants from Bangladesh. While the main destination subregion is still Western Asia, some countries are emerging as new destination locations, such as Italy, Mauritius and the Republic of Korea. In fact, recently, there have been significant shifts in the key destination countries. For a long time, Saudi Arabia was the host country for more than half of the Bangladeshi migrants but this number dropped sharply in 2009 and 2010. Similarly, Malaysia was an important destination country for several years, but recently the outflows to this South-East Asian country have tapered off (figure 2).

About 50 per cent of temporary migrants from Bangladesh are classified as low skilled, 16 per cent semi-skilled, 31 per cent skilled and only 3 per cent professionals (BMET 2011). Bangladesh is looking to steadily turn its human capital resource into an asset through training, skills development and market research programmes and reap benefits from the labour migration process. This, however, presents a significant challenge due to the fact that low-skilled workers comprise about half of the migrants seeking employment abroad. These migrants generally lack basic education, and often do not have the opportunity to partake in further training to develop their skills.

Currently, the skill development training facilities in the country, both in the public and private sectors, are limited. However, efforts are being made to enhance and develop the capacities of the existing 38 skills training institutions to ensure that migrants are better prepared for working overseas. In addition, the Government has implemented initiatives in this area, such as the Skill Development Fund, to be used as a revolving fund to finance skills training programmes. The Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET) is now estimated to be able to train 50,000 workers annually in different trades (BMET 2011).

Systematic research into overseas labour market prospects and trends is not well developed in Bangladesh, and overseas employment takes place predominantly on an ad hoc basis. As a result, the country lacks a well-managed labour migration policy which would match demand in specific sectors with the properly skilled supply of labour. Only recently, the Government set up a market research unit in BMET.

The private sector is the most common channel for migration, accounting for more than 95 per cent of the migrant outflows. Within the sector, migrations are either arranged through personal networks (59 per cent) by the prospective migrants or through licensed recruiting agencies (40 per cent). Private recruitment agencies are further supported by the presence of sub-agents or middlemen (known as dalals) who work at the grass-roots level. The middlemen, who are often relatives, neighbours or returnee migrants, work with the recruitment agencies and provide a one-stop service to migrants aspiring to go abroad. For the low-skilled potential migrant, the middleman offers services, such as obtaining passports, visas, ticketing, government clearance and other documentations, in return for a fee. They also assist in making arrangements for departing migrants to obtain pre-departure orientation and training if required. The agencies, in essence, play a significant role in helping the migrants access their required travel-related documentation and carry out other official procedures. But, this service also often comes with its share of deceit and exploitation. As the middlemen are not registered with the recruiting agents or the governments, it has become a major challenge to monitor their activities and in turn, many of them exploit the migrants by charging exorbitant fees, in comparison to the amounts fixed by the government.

There is also significant migration from Bangladesh to Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, which notably has increased in recent years. The main destination countries are the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America. In previous years, more than 10,000 Bangladeshis migrated to the United States of America annually (OECD 2011).

Remittances play a key role in the Bangladesh economy. In 2010, remittance flows to Bangladesh reached a record $10.7 billion (figure 3), which placed the country among the top remittances receivers in the world. The increase in remittances also reflects the spikes in out-migration in 2007 and 2008.

As stated earlier, the migration of women from Bangladesh is still low. However, in recent years, the number has picked up, mainly to countries in Western Asia, from only 454 in 2000 to 24,838 in 2010. In contrast, the flow of male migrants has dropped in the past two years. Approximately 80 per cent of women migrants work as domestic workers (BMET 2011).

Main destination countries of migrant women have changed over time. In the early 1990s, Malaysia was the main destination country but by the end of that decade, the flow of Bangladeshi women migrants to the country almost stopped, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates becoming the main destination countries. In 2009 and 2010, the majority of women labour migrants went to Lebanon. Mauritius has also emerged as an important destination for women migrants (BMET 2011).

As a result of restrictions placed on Bangladeshi women seeking employment abroad, many of them have resorted to private and informal channels, making them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Also facilities and activities, to support women migrants, such as skills development and training, are limited. However, in light of growing recognition of the potential of female labour migration from Bangladesh, the Government recently adopted significant measures to encourage and support women labour migration through such activities as seeking out new markets, skills development training and pre-departure orientations.

In addition to the official movement mentioned above, a large number of women reportedly cross the border illegally to India and become irregular migrants. Due to the nature of this flow, the exact number of these migrants is difficult to ascertain.

Although Bangladesh has strong diasporas in different countries of the world, with an overwhelming majority in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America, tapping these communities to support the overall development of the country through business, trade links, investments, remittances, skill circulation and exchange of experiences has only recently been considered.