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

newsimageThe 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. The other reasons that push people to becoming ‘irre