Migration: I am biased, for people

We must not build a divisive agenda on migration, otherwise it will lead to endless spread of hatred

By Sunita Narain
Published: Monday 13 January 2020
Migrant labourers in Delhi. Photo: Vikas Choudhary

It is not possible to be neutral in these times. I believe the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA), which fast tracks Indian citizenship to immigrants of certain religions, is deeply flawed. Not only it is against the secular nature of the country, but it also completely misses addressing the massive issue of human migration. Migration is not just about foreigners entering India illegally; not even just about Indians immigrating out—often illegally. It is also about internal migration. 

When people move to cities and countries, it builds tension between “insiders” and “outsiders”. We need a response to this. CAA takes all this and makes it into a simple issue of providing citizenship based on religion to fix historical injustice of partition — creation of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh on the basis of religion. It is selective, parochial and unjust. Worse, it will divide us along “insider” and “outsider” lines and spread hatred.

The question is when will this end? Or will it only grow and spread like cancer. It should not surprise anyone that in Assam — where more of these people are expected to gain citizenship in the immediate future — the anger is not about the selective nature of CAA. In Assam, people do not want the outsiders — Hindu, Muslim or Jain — because they will take away their lands, livelihoods and threaten their cultural identity. Their fight is for their already scarce and contested resources. But it is also about their identity. This is where the issue becomes so complex.

The fact is immigrants are already defining politics in most parts of the world. In Europe, there is the image of invasion of hordes of “boat people”; in the US, President Donald Trump has made the “wall” his mission to keep out the outsiders. In these insecure times, this anger and fear is growing and is fueling polarised politics.

And this, when, according to the World Migration Report 2020 — published by the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) — only some 3.5 per cent of the world’s population migrated from one country to another in 2019. But this is growing faster than anticipated. This is because in the past two years, the report notes, there have been major migration and displacement events. The violent conflict from Syria to South Sudan has driven people out of their countries.

Then there is extreme violence or there is severe economic and political instability, and now there is the added push because climate change is increasing natural disasters and forcing people to leave their homes permanently. All this means that 272 million people globally joined the ranks of international migrants; two-thirds of whom were migrant labourers.

According to this assessment, India has the largest number of migrants living abroad — some 17.5 million. IOM does not account for internal migration. Add this, Indians are moving from village to city and to a new country only for work. People are leaving because there is no option, or they want more options.

In June last year, when six-year-old Gurupreet Kaur died of heat stroke in the Arizona desert, her parents left Punjab and were making their way as illegal migrants to the US. There is no war in Punjab that would drive them to take this extreme step. But Gurupreet’s parents told the media they were “desperate” — they wanted a better life for themselves and for their children.

Now with climate change, the number of distressed and displaced will increase. IOM classifies this migration as “new displacement” — over 60 per cent of these were triggered by weather-related disasters; from storms to floods and droughts. In the Horn of Africa, there were close to 800,000 people displaced by drought.

In 2018, the Philippines had the largest number of new disaster displacement — intensification of tropical cyclones. And remember, climate change impacts are the tipping points as the poor are already living on the margins. Increased inequality is adding to stress; rural economies are dying. Weather-related events will drive people to the point of no return — they will join the hordes of migrants. We know this from the number of illegal settlements in our cities today.

So, what then should be done? Firstly, it is clear that we need strategies to build local economies so that people do not have to leave. In the 1970s to get relief from severe droughts in Maharashtra, VS Page, a Gandhian visionary long forgotten, came up with the country’s first employment guarantee scheme. Professionals in Mumbai paid a tax to provide a floor to poverty in rural areas. Surely, we can do much more today.

Secondly, and most importantly, we must not build a divisive agenda on migration. There will be no end once we start to count the outsider. The fact is that the same World Migration Report points out that in 2019, India received roughly $80 billion from foreign remittances — the highest in the world. This is what we need to remember. Not numbers, but people.

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