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Breaching borders

Print edition : Jun 15, 2007 T+T-

Ordinary people take extraordinary risks for a better living and in the process make India a large-scale exporter and recipient of illegal migrants.

Fences just cannot be built high enough to deter people from seeking prosperity, particularly in a world that sees free movement of goods as a virtue. States must cooperate to find humane solutions.

"ACQUA FRESCA della noce di cocco," shouts out Harvinder Pal, in Punjabi-accented Italian, "acqua fresca, Coca, birra." No one at the spanking-new shopping mall in New Delhi's Pitampura area even pauses to look, assuming him to be one of the many middle-class, prescription-drug addicts who spend their evenings staring at the advertisements for Reebok, Adidas and Levis for want of anywhere else to go.

"Before I was deported," says the 22-year-old, smiling wryly, "I spent three months selling beer and soft drinks at a beach and the words keep going around in my head. I harvested fruits, I worked on construction sites and I even made 300 chapatis a day for other illegal workers from India. Every night I would dream that some beautiful, rich woman would see me at the bus stop the next morning and say, `Harry, please marry me.' Madness, no?"

During his months of madness, Harvinder was one of the tens of thousands of Indians who work illegally in the United States and Europe. Seduced by a friend's claims that he would make "the price of a laptop computer in a week," Harvinder paid a travel agent over Rs.300,000 to arrange a passport and tourist visa to Russia. From Moscow, the agent arranged for his onward travel to Italy by road, hiding out in the cargo container of a truck. For most, the dream ends in an internment camp, followed in quick time by deportation. So it did for Harvinder.

In spite of the odds, though, the numbers of illegal migrants have increased. India is, perhaps, uniquely positioned as both a large-scale exporter of illegal migrants and a recipient. Even as young people like Harvinder attempt to reach the West, constantly exploring new and ingenious routes through central Europe and East Asia, tens of thousands of workers from Bangladesh and even Myanmar come to India in search of work. Some hope to escape grinding poverty; others hope to pursue dreams that their education and status would not allow them to pursue at home.

Ever since the recent arrest of Member of Parliament Babubhai Katara on charges of facilitating a fake-passport racket, much of India's media have seen the problem of illegal immigration as, in the main, one of criminality. Much of the reportage has focussed on the organised crime cartels that facilitate such movement and on their allies amongst corrupt officials. There has been little serious effort to document the illegal immigrants themselves: to understand the dreams and hopes that drive ordinary people to take extraordinary risks. Frontline correspondents sought answers in five States, and in Europe itself.

South Asia, to use the words of the British sociologist Roger Ballard, "is now peppered with symbolic monuments proclaiming the clearest possible message: the route to real prosperity lies overseas."

We live in a world where the free movement of goods is seen as a virtue - but also one in which the movement of peoples is more difficult than at any time in the past. It was not always so. Until the coming of the modern nation-state, refugees from famine and pestilence, traders in search of new opportunities, missionaries and mercenaries all travelled as far as their fortune would take them. Hence, today's Malayalis in Colombo, Sikhs in Bangkok or Sindhis in East Africa. Colonial Great Britain's labour needs took hundreds of thousands of labourers to work on projects in Africa and the Caribbean.

For much of the 20th century, similar movements of people took place without impediment. Indus river boatmen who lost out when the Lahore-Karachi railroad was built in the 19th century, for example, found work as coal-stokers on Britain's merchant fleet. An ethnic colony of some size had begun to evolve in the port of Sydney by the end of the first quarter of the last century, and substantial enclaves of Mirpuris also emerged in the United Kingdom during the Second World War.

Until new legislation prohibited their entry in 1917, Sikhs in the US set up farms and homes in California. Punjabis from the Doaba, similarly, helped meet the needs of Great Britain's factories in the years of industrial expansion that followed 1945.

Remittances from these social groups even played an important role in facilitating the Green Revolution - and continue to be the source of prosperity and prestige today.

Increasingly, however, getting hold of the legal papers that offer access to wealth and opportunity has become difficult - at least for the vast millions of people who do not possess the degrees and professional qualifications that rich states desire. The coming of the modern nation-state, as well as the growth of xenophobic tendencies, has made criminal what not so long ago was an entirely acceptable enterprise.

Reliable figures on the scale of illegal migration are, for obvious reasons, hard to come by. What is clear, though, is that the numbers are enormous - and that the illegal migrants play a critical role in the economies of countries which want to be rid of them.

According to the European Commission, there are now between 4.5 million and eight million illegal immigrants in its member-states, who contribute between 7 per cent and 16 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP).

In the US, the Pew Hispanic Centre estimates that there are as many as 12 million illegal immigrants and their numbers are growing at the rate of half a million a year. Without them, the economy would be hit hard: a quarter of all agricultural workers, one in five janitors, and a seventh of the construction workers are illegal immigrants.

Given the size of India's population, its problem is not exceptional: according to various research estimates, between 15 million and 20 million illegal immigrants live and work in the country.

Efforts to staunch the flow of illegal immigrants have had no effect except that of imperilling the lives of those engaged in the search for a new life overseas. According to the No Fortress Europe campaign, at least 8,175 people have died since 1988 while attempting to make their way into the region illegally.

"Every year," the organisation notes, "hundreds of them drown on their way from Africa to Italy or Spain, suffocate in sealed containers, starve in locked trucks, are blown to pieces by landmines between Turkey and Greece or freeze on their way across mountain ranges. And if they do finally manage to arrive in `Fortress Europe', they find that they are not at all safe. They are fenced in, in so-called refugee centres, some of which do not differ from a normal prison."

Still, the flow continues. Pakistan recently warned that traffickers were waiting to push upwards of 10,000 of its nationals through Turkey into Italy and Greece. Despite the deaths of hundreds of young Punjabi would-be illegal immigrants when their ship went under in the Ionian Sea in 1996, the flow from India continues unabated. Just how much some young people are willing to risk is evident from the story of Pradeep Saini, who spent 10 hours stowed away in the undercarriage of a New Delhi-London British Airways flight, incredibly surviving temperatures of -60 Celsius.

Given the absence of a regulatory framework, and illegal immigrants' desperate fear of the law, organised crime groups have a free run. Women are amongst the most vulnerable. According to estimates published in 1997 by Lawyers for Human Rights, a Pakistani non-governmental organisation (NGO), more than 200,000 Bangladeshi women had been sold into slavery in Pakistan at rates ranging from $2,000 to just $50. While most of them were sold onwards to West Asia, some 40,000 were thought to be working in brothels in Karachi and other major cities. Although independent scholarly estimates are hard to come by for India, activists say the figures for cities like Mumbai and Delhi are not dissimilar.

The Bangladeshi journalist M. Ali provided this chilling account of an auction in the October 14, 2003 issue of Dhaka's Weekly Detective: "Those who were sold went with the buyers. The rest returned to the place they had come from. Everyone remained silent. It seemed that the girls were homeless, stateless, speechless and helpless."

Most illegal immigrants would be familiar with the sentiment, if not the precise predicament. Last month, Harvinder received a letter from his friend `S'. S had made his way to Germany and filed papers claiming that his life was under threat in New Delhi because of vendetta provoked by a cross-caste marriage. None of which was true, of course. It is a tactic others have used to seek asylum, for the most part with little success.

States are responding to the continued flow of illegal immigrants by raising their fences. Each year, the US spends millions of dollars on securing its southern borders against the wave of illegal migrants from Mexico and elsewhere in South America. Plans to build a $2.2-billion wall along the border, backed by floodlights, surveillance cameras and motion detectors, are now in place. India, for its part, hopes to fence much of its 4,095-kilometre border with Bangladesh at a cost that is eventually likely to exceed Rs.2,000 crore.

But fences, it is clear, just cannot be built high enough to deter people from seeking prosperity. No simple solutions to the problem are evident. Large-scale illegal immigration into parts of India's northeastern region, for example, has fuelled ethnic conflicts. In Europe and the United States, labour groups worry that the flow of immigrants helps capital to undermine their rights and lower wages. States must cooperate to find humane, pragmatic ways to protect the lives of people who want nothing other than a chance at a new life.

Names in this story have been altered to protect the identities of illegal immigrants.