Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 19, 2016
There is an urgent need for a national immigration policy in which the government ought to aim at giving immigrants their rights.
Urgent need for a national immigration policy

Migration is a big international issue today, especially in the US and EU while it has been a prominent feature in India’s history always. We witnessed the biggest migration in history in 1947 when 12 to 17 million people were displaced from their homes and communities and moved across the hastily created borders by the British. Even today, India is continuously absorbing streams of migrants from neighbouring countries without much fuss or ripples on the domestic economy.

India is both a host to migrants from neighbouring countries and also a big source of emigration to the Middle East and countries beyond. People leave their homes mostly for economic reasons, but as in the case of Partition, they were pushed out due to political turmoil. This is happening in Europe right now. The migration issue would not have been controversial if there was full employment and abundant resources in the host country. This is not the case in India. Many illegal immigrants are seen to be taking up unskilled jobs. India has already built a fence between Bangladesh and India. The two countries have the longest border of 4096.7 kms in South Asia. Illegal Bangladeshi immigrants whose numbers are not easy to estimate (between three to 20 million) come for work in Assam and West Bengal and many travel all over India to find jobs. This was a hot issue in the 2014 general elections. Clear and reliable data on the number of illegal immigrants is missing and should be collected somehow to let everyone know the true picture.

Currently, the migration from Bangladesh has ebbed because Bangladesh is growing faster than neighbouring West Bengal and Assam. It has better human development indicators and the standard of living is going up in Bangladesh. The incentive to migrate has thus lessened except for the very poor. But there is still some migration going on and there are reports of Bangladeshis going to Kerala because of the growing demand for labour and its big Muslim population.

Nepal also sends migrants to India as there is an open border between the two countries. Many Nepalis work in India without any problem and remit money to families in Nepal. Also there are immigrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Most of the immigrants to India come for jobs, but since they are mostly unskilled, they are not taking up the jobs that educated youth are seeking. In fact, unemployment rate remains high among educated youth in India at 32 percent (2012-13) as compared to the unskilled and illiterate workers whose unemployment rate was low at 3.7 percent in the 15-29 age group. The youth unemployment data in general in India is quite alarming and the government has to create nearly one million jobs a month. Migrants from Bangladesh and Nepal are mostly doing low paid menial jobs like scavenging, agricultural or service jobs like guards and maids.

Immigrants, legal or illegal, get assimilated easily in India because they share the common culture of the subcontinent. They live in slums mostly and may get ration cards, availing of subsidised food and fuel. Otherwise, they have no social safety net or job security.  They often return to their home countries once they have earned enough money. Immigrants are contributing to the GDP of India and are also consumers of Indian products and services.

India and Bangladesh have resolved their border enclaves’ problem and now they should resolve the border crossing problem because innocent people are being killed while trying to cross over through the fences. Even though the problem of illegal immigrants was a big election issue in West Bengal and Assam recently, it is not acknowledged as an issue by the government of Bangladesh. Instead it has alleged the presence of illegal Indian immigrants in Bangladesh.

India itself is a source of emigration and has the largest diaspora in the world comprising 1.6 crore people. Most of those in the US and EU are highly skilled or educated. Migrants to the Middle East are less educated and often unskilled. They comprise construction workers, drivers, mechanical and clerical staff, nurses and maids. Most have to pay substantial sums of money to agents to get jobs and visas. Visa sponsorship for jobs is common in the Middle East also and it makes the workers virtual slaves of the employers who often confiscate all documents of the workers on arrival. The workers thus cannot find alternative employment elsewhere or even go back home.

There are many cases when poor emigrants to the Middle East are exploited and cheated and left starving without jobs as in the recent case of Saudi Arabia. Around 7700 workers were reportedly found in a camp in Saudi Arabia without much food after they were thrown out of their jobs. Quite often, Indian workers are deported by host countries because of visa frauds.

Most migrants send back money home. All the South Asian countries are receiving huge remittances from abroad. In recent years, due to falling oil prices, the remittances have taken a dent and many emigres are returning home which is a disturbing trend like in Kerala which has the maximum number of workers going to the Gulf region. Even so India receives the highest remittances of $68.9 billion of which 50 percent is the contribution from workers in the Middle East.

Just like the state does not grant labour and democratic rights to immigrants from neighbouring countries to India, Indian workers in the Middle East are also facing denial of rights. India’s External Affairs Ministry gets into action whenever there is a crisis in these countries fast enough, but they have to face the impossible task of getting the documents of the stranded workers to repatriate them. Thus reliable data is needed for both immigration and emigration of workers to and from India. Today there is an urgent need for a national immigration policy in which the government ought to aim at giving immigrants their rights and insist that Indian workers abroad also should have similar rights. It should also see to it that human exploitation and trafficking both at home and abroad is stopped.

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David Rusnok

David Rusnok

David Rusnok Researcher Strengthening National Climate Policy Implementation (SNAPFI) project DIW Germany

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