The arrest of two allegedly overstaying Indians near Glasgow, and their release after the van in which they were being taken away was surrounded by their supporters, has emerged as a dramatic test case for a new agreement between India and the United Kingdom for the release of Indians without a currently valid permit. Whether these are illegal migrants as officials say, or undocumented migrants as more sympathetic people see it, is a matter of perception.
In law, strictly speaking, Lakhvir Singh, a mechanic, and Sumit Sehdev, a chef, have lived in Glasgow for more than ten years now. Authorities descended on their home in a dawn raid last week and pushed them into a van. Neighbours who saw this gathered around the vehicle and blocked it from leaving. The standoff lasted eight hours. In the end, the men had to be released.
There the matter has not ended. The Home Office has said it will round them up and deport them to India. They are both said to have overstayed after being denied leave to remain. Getting them out of Britain has now become a test case for the determination of the British government, and in particular Home Secretary Priti Patel who is determined to be seen as tough on migration.
“They will still be detained and deported at a later date,” the Home Office has said. But several local groups are preparing to come together to mount a legal challenge.
“It’s wrong to call them illegal,” Robina Qureshi, director of the charity Positive Action in Housing, told The Herald newspaper in Scotland. “The Home Office is casting aspersions on men from the Indian community. They have been working and living peacefully in the community for years and it’s just a matter of not having the right paperwork. They are not criminals.”
Similar questions arise over thousands of other Indians in Britain. Strictly speaking, they may be in Britain illegally, but the law has not spoken strictly for many years now. It has long been a convention, even if not law, that if people have been living for a long stretch, they should on humanitarian grounds have their stay regularised rather than face deportation.
Agreement with India
India and the UK signed a memorandum of understanding on mobility and migration on May 4 during the course of a visit to London by India’s Minister for External Affairs, S Jaishankar. As the Glasgow arrests show, this is an agreement that would have been far easier to sign than to implement.
Pitfalls mark the path to implementation at every step starting from the first. Britain has suggested that there are at least 75,000 illegal migrants from India that it wants to send back. The Indian government believes the number to be no more than about 2,000. That in effect means that the Indian government is unlikely to process papers and to support a process that would bring many more than that number back to India – and if that.
Deportation of anything like the number the British have in mind, about 75,000 or by some estimates even 100,000, would create massive distress, and unrest, among UK’s estimated 1.5 million Indian community. The agreement seeks to take away the rights of children born in Britain to undocumented people. The UK government has proposed the creation of emergency travel documents for children based on their British birth documents to deport them to India along with their parents.
Such a move would mean pulling thousands of Indian children out of school and their homes if indeed the UK government can go ahead with all the numbers of deportations it has set out for. Homes would have to be sold, likely at distress prices, and personal connections built up over the period of a decade or more disrupted. Such large-scale uprooting in a Western democracy is unprecedented.
What the Indian government has been offered instead is a higher number of visas for students and for some work professionals. Students from India are already a major source of revenue for the UK. The deal as agreed by India in effect adds up to sending more money into Britain in exchange for uprooting thousands of Indians who have been settled here for long periods now.
Given the low end of the figures that the Indian government seems to accept, this still means that the Indian government is prepared to see those Glasgow scenes, leading to successful arrest and eviction, multiplied a thousandfold.