India Needs to Look Beyond the Debate on Regular and 'Irregular' Migrants

The country, being the highest remittance receiver of the world, should seize the opportunity offered by negotiations at the UN Global Compact on Migration and take a more humane approach.

“What is an illegal or a legal migrant? A human being is a human being. How can we stop extending help to an Indian stranded in a foreign country for no fault of his. Isn’t it a crime? How can an embassy withdraw itself from extending helping or delay the same?”

These were the words of Sarwan Singh, the younger brother of Nishan Singh, who was killed in Iraq along with 39 others reportedly in 2017.

“On June 1, 2015, my brother told me over the phone that they had informed the Indian embassy in Baghdad that they were in trouble in Mosul and needed to be rescued,” Sarwan said, adding that instead of extending help, the embassy officials reportedly started blaming the stranded workers.

“The embassy officials asked my brother and his friends whether they had sought permission before migrating to Iraq,” said Sarwan, a resident of Sangoana village in Amritsar district.

“On June 21, he (Nishan) made a last call saying that nobody from the embassy was helping them,” Sarwan said.

Nishan and 39 others were abducted by Islamic State (IS) terrorists near Mosul in Iraq in 2014.

Luckily, one of them managed to escape captivity while the fate of the others was unclear till last month when Sushma Swaraj, the minister of external affairs, announced in Parliament that all of them were dead.

The bodies of 38 workers, including Nishan’s, were brought to India in April. One body was left behind as a complete DNA match had not been done in the case.

When the bodies were brought to India from Iraq,  V.K Singh, minister of state of external affairs, said that the government couldn’t do much as the workers were illegal migrants. “It is a fact that they (the workers) went there (Iraq) through an illegal agent,” the minister said.

Referring to a group of 46 nurses from Kerala who were rescued by India in 2014 from the clutches of the Islamic State, the minister said that was possible only because the country had a record of them. “I want all Indians to go abroad legally. Besides, they should go safely and with proper training”, he said, adding, that “as far as illegal travel agents are concerned, state governments are responsible for law and order, and should arrest such agents and take legal action against them”.

The Minister’s statement did not go down well with the relatives of the deceased workers.

Sarwan believes that if the Indian embassy had the will and looked upon his brother and his friends as Indian citizens, they could have saved them. “He (Nishan) became ‘illegal’ for the Indian government only because he went through a sub-agent. He had paid Rs 160,000 in 2014 to an agent in Punjab to secure a job in Iraq. He went for work.  He has been tagged as ‘illegal’ for no fault of his,” he said.

Knowingly or unknowingly, the junior minister ‘revealed’ the government’s stand on the ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’ status of migrants. His
response clearly exposed the government’s stance that they were ‘annoyed’ by Indians taking irregular pathways for migration, completely disregarding the fact that these migrants don’t do so deliberately, their economic and social conditions force them to.

Nobody voluntarily or knowingly prefers to take an irregular path for migration. It is the drivers of migration, such as poverty, climate change, loss of livelihood, political tension and lack of knowledge about regular migration pathways that most often turn a person into becoming an ‘irregular migrant’ .

Even though the Indian government has a list of registered agents as also an official online eMigrate recruitment channel in place since mid-2015,  yet a majority of potential migrants go through unregistered sub-agents. In most cases, an unregistered sub-agent can even be a relative or friend whom the potential migrant is ‘close’ to and trusts.

Additionally, even if a person is a regular migrant while entering a foreign country, he/she can become ‘irregular’ due to various reasons. For instance, the chances of a regular migrant to become an ‘irregular’ one in the Gulf are quite high if the exploitative Kafala (sponsorship) system, the bonded labour system, exists in the host country.

Migrant rights activists feel protection must be provided to both regular and irregular migrants while opening more routes for legal migration. Caption: Wikimedia Commons

The other reasons that push people to becoming ‘irregular’ migrants include duplication of job contract at the employer’s end, seizure of travel documents – including passport – by the employer, late payment or denial of salary, lack of health assistance, almost creating conditions of forced labour that eventually pushes a worker to ‘run away’ and make him/herself an ‘irregular’ migrant.

The moment a worker runs away from the employer in an attempt to be free from exploitation, a single police complaint can make him/her ‘illegal’ for no fault of his/her. In fact, in such a situation, such workers require more help from the authorities as compared to a regular migrant.

As per the Emigration Act, 1983, Emigration Check Required (ECR) categories of Indian passport-holders require “emigration clearance” from the office of Protector of Emigrants (P0E) for going to 18 countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Malaysia, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Syria, Lebanon and Thailand.

As emigration is banned to Iraq, those who migrate there are unfortunately seen as ‘irregular’ by the Indian government, which was what probably ‘forced’ the junior minister to make that statement.

The fact is that a large number of Indians are class X pass and migrate with Emigration Clearance Not Required passports. For example, in Kerala, failing in class X is quite rare, and most people from the state migrate through visit visas, considered ‘irregular’ according to government norms. These visit visas are issued by their relatives in the Gulf, and are later changed to job visas in the host country. However, in such cases, the Indian government is not aware whether such a person is working abroad or not.

According to migrant rights activists in both home and host countries, there is a big difference between the official eMigrate number and the number of actual migrants.

As per India’s migration norms, those who have not migrated through official eMigrate are seen as ‘irregular’, so it becomes difficult to help them when they need assistance in foreign land.

It is quite common to see Indian mission officials in some Gulf countries ‘yelling’ at stranded irregular migrants, questioning them as to why they migrated through the ‘irregular’ route when official paths were available. Most of  the times, officials  wash their hands off  stranded workers citing diplomatic and technical reasons.

Migrant rights activists, however, feel that more regular migration pathways need to be opened up, but at the same time protection must be provided to both regular and irregular migrants.

That the Indian government  is opposed to providing equal status to both kinds of migrants became clear when an official explained India’s stand at United Nation’s Global Compact on Migration (GCM) in March at New York. “We should not overlook the goal of “safe, orderly, regular migration”. Any measures to encourage irregular migration would challenge this – we are not suggesting that irregular migrants should be stripped of their human rights, but they cannot be treated on a par with regular migrants – without clear definitions of “migrant”, “irregular”, “refugee” the compact is incoherent – GCM should not only avoid specific references, but also implicit references to refugee protection. We are surprised that states that wanted the compacts to be binding now and want the compact to exceed national law. This is contradictory – clear definitions and linkages to the 2030 agenda are necessary. Consult with International Labour Organisation (ILO) for assessing skills and employability of migrants,” the official reportedly said.

The UN, ILO and all migrant-sending and receiving countries see the GCM as a milestone in the history of the global migration dialogue.
Even though, it is a non-binding framework for international migration, it presents a collective commitment to improving international cooperation among all actors of migration.

The GCM sets out to develop a common understanding, shared responsibilities and unity of purpose regarding migration amongst stakeholders. So far, three negotiations are over at the UN and a few countries have even formed blocks to have collective bargaining power on the basis of their common goals.

However, India being a very important migration country, being the highest remittance receiver of the world with over 16 million living overseas, and being the third highest migrant hosting country in 2017, has not taken a positive and pro-migrant stand at the GCM.

Even at the first round of negotiations, India was looking at the words used in the compact rather than at the human angle. Unfortunately,  the Indian government seems to have lost track in realising that the GCM is a significant opportunity to improve governance on migration, to address the challenges associated with today’s migration, and to strengthen the contribution of migrants and migration to sustainable development. Hopefully, India will seize this GCM opportunity, which would truly prove to be a miracle  for the vast number of the country’s migrant population.

Rejimon K is a Panos Fellow journalist and a migrant rights activist for the last one decade with Migrant Forum in Asia. He is currently an India-Arab Gulf Senior Investigator at Equidem, which probes workers rights all over the world. He is also a fellowship advisor for Ethical Journalism Network and a media resource person for International Labour Organisation.