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By Sujeet Kumar

Last month an 11-year-old Ukrainian boy travelled nearly 11,000 km with only a plastic bag, a passport and a telephone number written on his hand to escape from Russian bombs. Many like him, including adults from Ukraine, travelled to different places to save their lives. Nearly 18,000 Indian students studying medicine and various courses in Ukraine desperately returned to their native homes. Thoughts are still fresh about how hundreds of Afghan residents left their homes to escape the Taliban rule. Besides this, we often read stories about how a poor Indian migrated to the USA or some other place has built a fortune in the hosting countries.

Whether a Ukrainian or an Indian, or an Afghani, these groups of residents were looking for possible ways to escape the war and continue a happy life. At the same, it has put a new set of debates on promoting ideas of global citizenship and locating essential rights of the migrants in a global context.

Growing Numbers

The International Organisation of Migration defines migration as a movement of people from their place of usual residence, either across an international border or within a State to avoid severe instability, economic crisis or conflict or a mix of these issues. It is estimated that nearly 3.5% of the world’s population are international migrants. It has more than doubled since 1990.

Nearly 80% of the international migrants belong to the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid and primarily crossed the border to have better income, better education and a better standard of living, and relatively a small proportion has migrated to escape war or extreme violence in their regions.

Migration in India

According to World Migration Report 2020, nearly 17.5 million people born in India live in other countries. India received about $87 billion in 2021 as remittance from these international migrants. At the same time, the number of internal migrant workers in India is almost 100 million. They predominantly work in the informal sector, where they receive limited social security against shocks or survival during challenging situations.

There is no doubt that migration helps individuals and communities in improving income and upward social mobility. Researchers have found that migration supplements the stock of skilled and abled human capital, which boosts research and innovation. Countries like Canada have highlighted the contributions of immigrants to the economy and well-being of their communities. Recently, the country introduced changes in the immigration policy to welcome new migrants to supplement labour demand and boost the economy.

In spite of the positive impact, many countries are still hesitant to welcome migrants, and their policies around migration are conservative. India ranked the lowest among 52 countries according to Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), despite the fact that millions of Indians seek better lives abroad. Similarly, for the internal migrants within India, the situation is not always welcoming. They often face discrimination and violence in the hosting provinces and are caught in a political slugfest.

Problems in Crises

Recent developments, mainly the Citizenship (Amendments) Act 2019, which prioritises international migrants on the basis of their religion and spatiality in offering a specific set of rights, is seen as a scary move. At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the precariousness of internally migrating people in different provinces of India. They were trapped with no jobs, no money and almost no food and left with the burden to pay housing rents despite economic setbacks.

However, it is essential to highlight that not protecting the rights of the poor migrants is an infringement of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution, which ensures migrants’ equality and right to life. Further, Article 1 (2) of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW) directs States to protect ‘entire migration process of migrant workers and members of their families, which comprises preparation for migration, departure, transit and the entire period of stay and remunerated activity in the State of employment as well as return to the State of the origin or the State of habitual residence’.

However, these legal safeguards have failed to protect migrants worldwide. They face discrimination and hate due to growing perceptions against them among ordinary citizens, and politicians are often found abusing the facts for stoking fear in their constituencies.

Friendly Policy

In this context, the need of the hour is to understand migration with renewed perspectives, particularly toward managing mobility and critically analysing the changing political narratives locally and globally. Also, a larger country size like India, consisting of persistent spatial inequality across its provinces, demands a fresh approach to understanding migration and formulating policies to protect migrants from sudden shocks arising out of epidemic or climatic change. On top of that, India is already bearing the fruits of Indians who have migrated abroad. Therefore, it is time for India to formulate friendly policies for welcoming international migrants and improve its score on MIPEX.

In the words of Dr Martin Luther King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. It is time to recognise migrants and the rising cases of injustice against them. The task remains for migration scholars, alongside politicians and policymakers, to realise the contribution of migrants to the making of society. We need to build hope and value-based narratives that have human worth and dignity at their heart.

(The author is an independent researcher based in Delhi. He has a PhD in Law and Governance from Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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Author: Howard Caldwell