Mukul Sharma

In a globalising, liberalising and corporatising economy, we have been ignoring labour rights laws and standards which guarantee migrants’ rights.

They are vilified as ‘illegals,’ ‘gate-crashers,’ ‘queue-jumpers,’ and ‘invaders’ seeking to breach the defences and decorum of Maharashtra and Delhi. They are labelled security threats, or suspected or potential threats, in Gujarat. They are tortured and murdered in Manipur and Assam. The scapegoating of migrants, the deliberate fuelling of fear, and the nurturing of discriminatory, casteist and xenophobic sentiments by some politicians and sections of the media, have been accompanied by regular incidents that amount to trampling on some of the most basic rights of migrants, including the right to life, liberty and security of the person. The current discourses create the impression not only that migrants have no right to enter, but that they have no rights at all. The hatred and violence against non-citizens, non-nationals, particularly migrants, could constitute one of the main sources of contemporary conservatism in India.

In the context of a globalising, liberalising and corporatising economy, we have been ignoring the substantial body of labour rights laws and standards which guarantees the rights of migrants. Our governments have no will today to turn these guarantees into practical and meaningful measures to respect, protect and promote migrants’ rights.

The “life-cycle” of migrant labour — the decision to leave the village or town of origin, the migratory journey, arrival and work in the place of destination, possibly back and forth to the village of origin — is the story of exploitation, invisibility, discrimination, and detention. It is also one of denial of adequate housing, human standards of living and access to health care; abuses of the right to work and rights at work; negation of freedom of association and restrictions on freedom of expression.

Overall, the treatment is degrading. Except for a few trade unions and labour support groups, there is hardly anybody working and campaigning to pressure governments, employers and others to make the rights that are set out in national and international laws into a reality for individual migrants. This silent human rights crisis should shame our conscience.

Thousands of people are migrating every day in the country, sometimes as a result of poverty and unemployment, or as a result of national, regional and global economic processes. Often this represents uncontrolled and unregulated movement of poor people.

Our governments’ omissions and commissions in the recent past on issues relating to migrants are to be seen not only in the sea of humanity travelling from one place to another without any sign of governance. In spheres such as employment, housing and security, the limits of state sovereignty are starkly on display. Instead of the state and its agencies, companies, contractors, middlemen, power brokers and politicians exercise exclusive jurisdiction over migrants. They exercise authority over their living and working. They hire and fire them at will. Thus, the need is to evoke state sovereignty in support of migrant people. Maharashtra, Assam and Manipur have the obligation to respect their voluntarily assumed legal obligations, including in protecting the rights of all migrants.

However, States today assert their sovereignty vis-À-vis migrants in paradoxical ways. As seen in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Delhi at different points in time, when state sovereignty is impacted by political, religious or other narrow considerations and circumstances, migration measures, such as identification, and the issue of ration cards or voter identity cards, are a visible means of asserting state authority. States claim the sovereign right to exercise power over the migrants, their citizenship, their habitation and territory. There are few areas where this claim is made more forcefully by our governments than in the sphere of migration. In such cases, the need is to say that state sovereignty is not absolute, it is not without limits.

Sovereignty cannot be used as a defence for acts that are unlawful and unjust. Advocates for migrant rights should seek to ensure that the primary starting point of the national migration regime is the rights of migrants rather than the interests of States. This has become even more of a necessity as many politicians and policymakers are increasingly influenced by a perception that a hard line on migrants would boost their popularity with the electorate. Migrants are made easy targets; the political currents, it is thought, can be ignited more by narrow local-regional sentiments and preoccupations about the perceived threats that they pose to the identity and security of the state.

Most migration management policies and pronouncements today are getting to be discriminatory. Governments encourage selected migration in white collar work while officially discouraging the migration of the poor and marginal people. The Delhi government that publicly states the absolute necessity to exclude irregular Bangladeshi migrants from its territory, is prepared to tolerate the existence and even the growth of informal labour markets for the purpose of preparing for the Commonwealth Games or the Delhi Metro project which rely largely on the labour of unregulated migrants.

If a regime of “migration management” is to be effective, not only must it be credible to the States, it must be credible to the migrants. We never hear of the participation of organisations of migrant workers, individual migrants and their groups in the making of their laws and policies. To achieve their participation and to respect their presence, we must halt the rise in forms of physical and mental abuse and violence at any stage of their living and working.

In the context of Maharashtra and Manipur, it is regrettable that the debate on migration and migrant workers continues to be framed in the immediate political contexts, with little or no focus on the rights of migrants. On the contrary, the ‘horror,’ ‘fear’ and ‘violence,’ coupled with the statements of political leaders and political parties, have dominated the discussion of migration issues amongst decision-makers and the public. There has been a tendency in public debates to treat migrants either as victims or as criminals. Portraying them as criminals or terrorists or parasites, or as being parochial, encourages a climate in which abuses against them are simplified, passed up or even condoned. Strategies are needed against the attacks and the new conservatism. The migrants’ capacity to organise, to adapt and to find ways out of bad situations must be recognised.

Migrants cannot put in place an exit strategy before embarking on their journey. So we must focus on those migrants who are most at risk. The voices of some courageous individuals and groups who speak out for migrants’ rights must not be silenced as we have been witnessing almost regularly in the slums of different cities.

Non-state actors, including private companies and individuals, millionaires and billionaires, contractors and builders, have a big impact on the lives and human dignity of migrants, although the primary duty to protect the migrants remains with the States. Migrants are part of the solution, not the problem itself.

(Mukul Sharma is the Director of Amnesty International in India.)