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No Land's Man: Assam's NRC Experiment Amid A Search for Solutions to Global Migrant Crisis
The repercussions of India’s controversial initiative will be felt for many years and opinions are divided over its necessity and efficacy, but the complex issue of human migration beyond borders cannot be resolved by a list or a wall.
News18 Creative by Mir Suhail
It’s a baffling problem rooted in the precarious territory where humanitarian crisis borders with a country’s sovereignty. Even as you read this, about two million residents of Assam would feel the ground beneath their feet shifting after being left out of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) released on August 31 in a far-reaching bid by authorities to check illegal immigration from neighbouring Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
Stories of distress and despair have emerged and more will continue to pile up as the ramifications of this momentous step unravel over the years, with a resolution unlikely in the near future. While the residents excluded have the right to appeal, the final list has pleased no one, with those — including members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — who pitched for the process, appearing disgruntled at the lower-than-expected number of “infiltrators” unearthed and that many of them are in fact Hindus.
With deportation to Bangladesh apparently not an option, the prospect of holding tens of thousands of people in detention centres for years after stripping them of citizenship conjures up images of a logistical nightmare that could trigger insomnia even in the ablest administrator. Let’s also not forget that advocates of the NRC want it to be replicated across India, with suggestions pouring in on social media about which part of the country needs it the most. “Kashmir,” say some. “West Bengal,” a few chime in. “No, no. Kerala,” others proffer with glee.
The NRC conundrum has surfaced at a time when repercussions of a swirling immigration crisis are being felt across the globe. United States president Donald Trump’s efforts to tackle the problem at the Mexican border are driving his critics up the wall even as horror stories keep coming out of the internment camps established to hold the trespassers.
The number of asylum seekers also shot up across Europe in recent years, with ripple effects being felt across the Mediterranean region. The European Union declared in March that the migration crisis, which peaked around 2015 — following the Arab Spring of 2011 and the fierce civil war in Syria that forced millions to flee their countries — was over, though structural problems persisted. However, it continues to be a hot electoral issue in the EU and, indeed, the world.
Backlashes to the influx of immigrants can be ugly, but they are also entirely natural, human responses to sudden cultural changes. As an article in The American Prospect points out, migration will remain central to the politics of Europe, raising fundamental questions about its societies, challenging the legitimacy of the system, and increasing the political strength of the far right.
It goes on to argue that in 2015, Europe’s reckoning with the hopeful, the desperate, the “wretched of the earth” was a reckoning with itself, with the contradictions and unresolved questions of capitalism, belonging, and national identity. Many European countries had long been accustomed to their own particular forms of immigration and nationhood. In this context, the year 2015 marked the end of an epoch and the beginning of a new one.
And despite optimistic assertions by administrators, close to 900,000 asylum seekers in the EU are waiting to have their claims processed, according to a report in The Guardian citing figures from the European statistics office. Factors leading to the continuing backlog include new laws from right-leaning governments and an increase in the number of rejections, leading to lengthy appeals processes. The rejection rate for asylum requests in Europe has almost doubled in three years, from 37 per cent in 2016 to 64 per cent in 2019, says the report. In Italy, rejections were at 80 per cent at the start of 2019, up from 60 per cent the previous year as the populist government also removed key forms of protection.
Observers say the problem is one of distinguishing between economic migrants and political refugees — and that’s a hot potato no one wants to handle.
Immigration in the US is embraced more fervently by the free market right than the trade union left, but few would disagree that it has brought real benefits. Immigrants contribute to innovation — witness the number of foreigners in Silicon Valley. And they take up jobs that native workers refuse, such as sustaining Californian agriculture. Yet, a Gallup poll result revealed in June that Americans’ concern with immigration continues to be heightened, as 23 per cent named it the most important problem facing the country.
This is by one percentage point the highest Gallup has ever measured for the issue since it first began recording mentions of immigration in 1993. Asked their preferences for US immigration levels, 37 per cent of Americans said it should be kept at its present level, while more said it should be decreased (35 per cent) than increased (27 per cent).
The spotlight in India is right now firmly focused on Bangladeshi immigrants amid concerns about a burgeoning population and paucity of resources even as a financial crunch looms. But it’s also true that this is a multidimensional subject with several factors to consider: for instance a lot of Indians who had settled abroad have started to return from countries like the US, Australia and the Gulf nations following an economic revolution over the last two decades. And the number of Bangladeshis in India is actually falling, according to the census, as a Mint report underscores.
That, however, is unlikely to cause political parties to pass on the opportunity to ratchet up the rhetoric and communalise this hot-button issue. Union home minister Amit Shah notably once dubbed such migrants as “termites”, and detractors have also raised concerns on the BJP’s plans to grant citizenship to Hindu immigrants excluded from the NRC list.
So what could be some long-term solutions? Well, legislators can start by enacting a national refugee law so that refugees are clearly defined and can be distinguished from illegal immigrants, and forging a bilateral agreement between India and Bangladesh that provides for taking back nationals who stay illegally in the other country after due verification, an article by former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) head Sanjeev Tripathi suggests.
There also needs to be a framework of incentives and disincentives, it goes on to say. The incentives could be in the form of granting refugee status and work permits, permission to stay and work during the verification period, and some monetary allowances. An added incentive could be giving priority in granting Indian citizenship or a work permit to those who declare themselves voluntarily.
Similarly, the article says, disincentives could be considered in the form of penal actions under the amended Foreigners Act for harbouring a foreign national, concealing the person’s presence, facilitating illegal immigration, and the like. Further, illegal immigrants could be barred from getting work permits if they do not voluntarily register themselves. Barbed wire fencing at the border should be completed expeditiously. In addition, under the bilateral developmental assistance programme, India should offer to provide financial and technical assistance to Bangladesh to introduce and implement a unique identity card system for its nationals, similar to Aadhaar. The process should preferably start in the border areas. India may also consider introducing a system of keeping biometric records of Bangladeshi nationals while granting them visas to visit India, Tripathi recommends.
While these ideas could be extrapolated to immigration from additional sources, India and other countries may also look to Spain for inspiration. A study by the European Council on Foreign Relations argues that it is possible to identify four key strands in the European nation’s aspirational approach to migration diplomacy.
Firstly, it involves informality and close cooperation. The high frequency of visits by Spanish officials to sub-Saharan African countries rests on an understanding of the importance of face-to-face contact. According to one government official, the Spanish approach aspires to put oneself in the other’s shoes, the report states. Sitting down with partners to discuss initiatives, understanding each other’s interests, and listening to the needs of partner states is central to the process. Secondly, Spain strives to avoid a mere ‘colonial’, formally transactional relationship. This implies going beyond thinking that EU-African relations should focus on border control to something much more multifaceted.
Thirdly, Spain is committed to developing a common professional security community with third countries. Within this community, joint police stations in Spain and Morocco would enable officers from each country to work side by side on a daily basis. Spain has also set up joint police posts in Senegal, Mauritania, and Niger. Fourthly, Spain proposes continuity in partnerships. While the European Commission and certain member states tend to pursue cooperation as part of crisis management, Spanish officials stress the need to maintain relations over time, says the report.
Human migration isn’t always triggered by misery, but also by ambition. So, reducing immigration, and selecting immigrants more carefully, will enable a country to more quickly and successfully absorb the people who come there, and to ensure equality of opportunity to both the newly arrived and the long-settled, states an article in The Atlantic. And, it argues, the question before nations is not: immigration, yes or no? In a mobile world, there will inevitably be quite a lot of movement of people. Immigration is not all or nothing. The questions to ask are: How much? What kind? Clearly the answer cannot be a list. Or a wall.
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