For all the Right-wing anti-migrant rhetoric now popular in many parts of the world, economic imperatives are powering migration flows that no amount of rule-making or wall-building can prevent.
Joining the Dots is a fortnightly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire.
News of another successful COVID-19 vaccine, this time from the American biotech company Moderna, has further raised hopes that at least one of the growing numbers of competing vaccines announced so far will work. No less importantly, at least one of them will hopefully be available at an affordable price at a dispensary near your house and mine in the next few months, enabling a return to “normal life”. Although millions of people are already going about their lives as though the coronavirus is but a conspiratorial rumour, one aspect of what was normal before the pandemic, travel, remains severely restricted.
The only movement of people happening, at least between countries, is what visa authorities of governments decree essential. Travel for holidays is not essential, and tourist visas except for “medical tourism” are not being issued by most countries. The tourists and travellers who flee cold winters in their home countries to spend their Christmas and New Year holiday season in sunnier climes will not be arriving in places such as Goa and Rajasthan this year.
Over ten million foreign tourists arrived in India in 2019. The corresponding number for Thailand was close to 40 million. These are massive numbers, but there was no outcry over their arrival. If even a fraction of these people had arrived as migrants rather than tourists, the countries would have been up in arms. There would be efforts at building walls, such as the one US President Donald Trump promised on his country’s border with Mexico. The entire state apparatus would be deployed to throw them out or lock them up in detention camps, by means such as Assam’s National Register of Citizens. Large sections of the public would have vociferously cheered on such steps. This is because, obviously, while tourist dollars are welcome, the people themselves are really not. Everywhere around the world, fish and visitors stink after three days.
What is less obvious is why migrants are so unwelcome. A common argument is that they take away jobs from locals. It is an argument that I have learnt to take with handfuls of salt.
Two years ago, when the world was still the crazy we called normal, I found myself one morning in a queue on a pavement outside the Polish embassy in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri. I had been invited to a conference in Warsaw and needed to apply for a visa. There was a large crowd, and it looked different from the usual monied crowds at embassies for western countries. Striking up a conversation with the people around me in the line, I discovered that many or perhaps most of them were visitors from Nepal. Poland had no embassy there, and they had made the journey to Delhi to apply for visas. They were agricultural labourers heading to Poland for work.
A year later, travelling in England outside London, I discovered one of the factors that prompted many people there to vote for Brexit. It was the large number of East European workers who had migrated into England, mainly to work in agriculture, hospitality and construction. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, the number of Polish nationals resident in the UK reached one million in 2016. Poland was the most common non-UK country of birth for migrants in the UK then. It has since been pushed to second place. The largest number of migrants to that country now are from India, followed closely by Poland, with Pakistanis coming in at third place. The Polish and Romanian labour in the UK after Brexit is slowly being replaced by Indian and Pakistani labour.
Despite Brexit, the cheap East European labour is being replaced by cheaper South Asian labour – not by local English labour. Some of the Polish labour is moving to Germany. And Nepali workers, among others, are migrating to Poland to fill the gaps they left behind. For all the Right-wing anti-migrant rhetoric now popular in Poland, and indeed even in England, economic imperatives are powering migration flows that no amount of rule-making or wall-building can prevent.
The politicians probably know this. Perhaps the point of the anti-migrant rhetoric, whether in the UK, the USA, Poland or India, is not really to prevent migrants from coming in. The rhetoric of Bangladeshi migration into India has floated the career of many a politician in North-East India over the decades. However, when it came to actually doing much about it, all governments till date – even the most rabidly xenophobic ones – failed. After all, whatever illegal Bangladeshi labour migration into North-East India happens is with the active support of contractors from local communities who employ them. Despite all the hot talk of jobs being taken away from locals, in reality there are no locals available with the skillsets to do those jobs at anywhere near the same wages.
The combination of anti-migrant rhetoric and a nudge-nudge-wink-wink policy of actually allowing migration suits everyone except workers, migrant as well as local. Its real use is in keeping them in their place, at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. Political leaders win elections on the anti-migrant plank, pressure groups get money and relevance, businessmen get cheap labour in the shape of migrant workers who have zero rights plus leverage over local workers who become easily replaceable, and citizens from the ‘right’ ethnic groups get both the satisfaction of feeling superior to some hated other and the fruits of cheap labour.
If exploiting people for personal gain is your traditional occupation, well, what’s not to like?
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