In the U.S. census of 2000 and the Canadian census of 2001, 57,412 Americans and 13,080 Canadians claimed Bangladeshi descent, though the numbers are speculative. Between 1981 and 1998, legal immigrants from Bangladesh to the United States numbered 68,000, but it was generally conceded that the actual number was twice as great. Most Bangladeshis (sometimes referred to as Bengalis or Bangalis) came as students, though many were secondary migrants from Saudi Arabia, Oman, Dubai, and Kuwait. They were concentrated in large urban areas, particularly New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Georgia, and Miami, Florida. Almost 90 percent of Bangladeshi Canadians live in urban centers throughout Ontario and Quebec.
Bangladesh occupies 51,600 square miles of South Asia between 21 and 27 degrees north latitude and is almost entirely surrounded by India, to the north, east, and west. The Bay of Bengal lies to the south and Myanmar to the southeast. The land is mostly flat and lies in a wet tropical climate zone dominated by the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. In 2002, the population was estimated at 131,269,860, with more than 12 million in the urban area of Dhaka. Ninety-eight percent of the population is Bengali, while the remainder is Bihari or tribal. Islam is the predominant religion and is practiced by 88 percent of the population; 11 percent are Hindus. Hindus occupied Bangladesh until the 12th century when Muslims invaded. Britain gained control of the region in the 18th century and in 1905 partitioned the region into Muslim and Hindu areas, presaging the eventual partition of India in 1947 along religious lines and dividing the Bengali people. At the time of partition, East Bengal was joined with the Muslim areas of western India, more than 1,000 miles away, to became a province of the new state of Pakistan. In 1971, civil war broke out between Pakistan and troops in the east. Pakistan surrendered after India joined the war in which 1 million died and 10 million refugees fled to India. Bangladesh’s independence was declared in December 1971. During the 1970s much of the economy was nationalized as the country came under the influence of India and the Soviet Union. Following several military coups, Bangladesh was declared an Islamic republic in 1988. Three years later a parliamentary democracy was declared. Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, has been subject to many natural disasters, including a 1991 cyclone that killed more than 131,000 people. Cyclones and floods regularly displace millions in a land of high population density and low-lying land.
Bengali immigrants began arriving in the United States as early as 1887, though their numbers remained small due to discriminatory legislation. Some were Hindu and Muslim activists who fled following the British partition of the region into Hindu and Muslim zones in 1905. Almost all early immigrants were single men, many of whom married Mexican or mixed-race women. During the first wave of immigration following independence in 1971, most immigrants were well-educated professionals, fleeing the political turmoil of their country and frequently granted refugee status. As late as 1980, there were still fewer than 5,000 foreign- born Bangladeshis in the United States, though their numbers steadily increased through the end of the century. During the 1990s, the minority Chittagong Hills people were more frequent immigrants, escaping political repression in Bangladesh. Between 1992 and 2002, almost 70,000 Bangladeshis were admitted to the United States.
Throughout the 19th century many educated Bengalis became part of the British colonial establishment, playing a large role in the nationalist movement and occasionally immigrating to various parts of the empire, including Canada, though their numbers were very small. In the first decade of uncertainty following independence, fewer than 1,000 Bangladeshis immigrated to Canada, joining perhaps twice that number from the Indian state of Bengal. The number of immigrants began to rise gradually during the 1970s, then more significantly after the mid-1980s, as earlier immigrants began to sponsor their family member. Of 21,595 Bangladeshis in Canada in 2001, more than 81 percent entered the country between 1991 and 2001.
See also Indian immigration
; Pakistani immigration
; South Asian immigration