Begumpara, the 'forbidden paradise' of wealthy Bangladeshis

Canada's major city Toronto has quite naturally become the favourite place for Bangladeshi immigrants to settle. It is estimated that the number of Bangladeshis living in Toronto now crosses 500,000 in total.

Toronto's 'Begumpara' has become quite well-known among the common Bangladeshi people as the area of luxury property and palatial houses built with wealth illegally laundered from Bangladesh. There really is no locality under the name of 'Begumpara' per se, it is simply a name that came into currency from an Indian filmmaker's documentary 'Begumpura'.

Women would spend most of the year away from their husbands, living abroad to bring up their offspring in the developed world and educating them there. These women became accustomed to living alone without their husbands. They and their children perhaps only once a year, twice at the most, would get to meet their husband or father. The rest of the time, the mother was the sole guardian of these children. These fractured family lives reeked with sadness and deprivation. This film 'Begumpura' dealt with the story of their loneliness, deprivation and isolation and created quite a stir in India and Canada. The film evoked strong empathy among the viewers, towards these women and their children.

But the character of the Begumpara built up by Bangladeshis  is quite different. This comprises palatial homes and lakeshore apartments purchased up by wealthy Bangladeshis in various posh locales of Toronto and the small towns in the Toronto surroundings, like Mississauga, Hamilton, Guelph and the townships around Ontario Lake. These are not houses or apartments affordable to the average Canadians or the Bangladeshi immigrants in Canada. The price range of such property is from around USD 1 million (Tk 10 crore) to USD 2 to 3 million (Tk 20 to 30 crore).

Begumpara has become the 'forbidden paradise' of wealthy Bangladeshis abroad. No one has the least sympathy for the begums and the sahibs of Begumpara as they have voluntarily taken this decision, actively complicit in money laundering

The Bangladeshi immigrants working and living in Canada normally can quite easily avail mortgage facilities to buy homes within the USD 300,000 to USD 600,000 range. The conditions are easy, especially if both husband and wife are working. The monthly mortgage payment comes to less than the rent they would have to pay for a house or apartment. That is why most Bangladeshi immigrants find it financially prudent to purchase property as soon as possible.

The common Bangladesh immigrants in Canada do not own these luxury homes and apartments. They are not wealthy residents of Begumpara either. In fact, the common Bangladeshis there are quite hostile towards Begumpara because the money-laundering wealthy Bangladeshis are responsible for inflating real estate prices in Toronto. These wealthy Bangladeshis purchase houses or apartments up front with cash, not bothered about mortgage. This maelstrom of money had caused the prices of property in Toronto and its surrounding areas to double in just a decade.

The main ploy to launder money in Bangladesh is over-invoicing in import trade and under-invoicing in exports. This laundered money is used to purchase property in Begumpara. Also, rather than sending remittance back home, property is being purchased abroad. And in recent times, remittance is being bought through the 'hundi' (illegal money transfer) channels by those who can launder it, and this is used to buy property in Canada's Begumpara.

Thus Begumpara has become the 'forbidden paradise' of wealthy Bangladeshis abroad. No one has the least sympathy for the begums and the sahibs of Begumpara as they have voluntarily taken this decision, actively complicit in money laundering.

The prime minister recently told the national parliament that at present around 14.9 million Bangladeshi immigrants are living in countries all over the world. So we can say the number of Bangladeshi immigrants in different countries around the world is around 15 million. It is difficult to calculate how many of them are working. Only a few hundred thousand of them are immigrants with their families, mostly residing in UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, France, Germany and other countries in Europe, as well as in Malaysia.

I could only include a small fraction of these estimated 15 million Bangladeshi immigrants in my investigation and research on 'money laundering'. These money launderers will not exceed a few thousand in number. They include corrupt civil servants, engineers, readymade garment factory owners, wealthy businessmen or politicians who skim off commissions, and these are among the society's upper middle class, extremely wealthy and elite class.

It is not that they are forced by economic constraints to migrate abroad. They are a part of the 'elite' groups, but they seek to leave the country for even more comfort and peace. The common characteristic of most of them is that they have 'black money' and, as owners of upscale urban property, industries and business, they can avail loans from banks in the country.

In my newspaper columns I persistently label them as 'number one enemies of the state'. It would not have been appropriate to label them as enemies of the state if they had sold their inherited property in this country and lined up for immigration. Or if they decided to relocate and live aboard, using their legally earned life savings or their wealth and property accumulated though their investments, that would be above reproach.

But those who I term as 'enemies of the state' in my research, are the ones who have abused the banking system, taken bank loans and defaulted on these loans for years and years, simply to siphon the money overseas. These are intentional defaulters, looting from the banks. They use their political affiliations to loots billions of taka and scoot off abroad.

They amass their wealth by means of corruption and capital theft, which is the 'number one problem' of the country in the 52 years since independence. Then they launder this ill-gotten wealth to Begumpara in Toronto, the Sydney fraternity in Australia and create their second homes in Malaysia.

* Dr Mainul Islam is an economist and former professor of the economics department at Chittagong University­

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