In May 2020, Bangladesh hit the headlines for surpassing India in the per capita income. The Bangladeshi per capita income rose to $2,227 in the financial year 2020-21 in comparison to India’s $1,947.417. This data was used by a section as one more argument to refute the allegation of illegal migration to India. This development took place at a time when the bilateral relationship between India and Bangladesh was already uneasy after India started implementing National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). However, the recent arrests of some Bangladeshi illegal migrants in India and in some foreign countries have once again brought attention over the crucial issue.
On 3rd July 2021 police in Andhra Pradesh on the basis of intelligence input arrested 8 Bangladeshis illegal migrants. They were heading to Goa in search of employment. All the illegal migrants had forged voter identity cards, Aadhar cards and pan cards. But none of them were having passports. Clearly, they had crossed the border through illegal means. Their interrogation has revealed that a number of Bangladeshis from Bagerhat and other districts have illegally migrated to India and are living in Kolkata, New Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Goa and other cities. They are working as daily wagers in the construction sector since then. It is believed that this intensification in illegal migration has happened because of the relaxation of the Covid norms in India.
A similar spurt has also been seen in attempts made by illegal Bangladeshis migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe. Unfortunately, a large number of them drowned in the Mediterranean while many of them were also rescued. At least 264 Bangladeshis were rescued in the Mediterranean off the Tunisian coast on 24 June 2021 when they were trying to sail across the sea to Europe. According to the Bangladeshi consulate in Tunisia at least 485 Bangladeshi migrants heading for Europe were rescued off the Tunisian coast in the last 90 days. The rescued Bangladeshis are being provided consular services in Tunisia and Libya.
The Covid pandemic has hit the Bangladeshi economy hard. Though, initially it was claimed that the economy of Bangladesh has kept growing despite the ill-effects of pandemic. Now the real impact of pandemic on the economy is being seen as desperate people try to migrate to other parts of the world in search of their livelihood.
In June 2020, a report prepared by Asian Development Bank and International Labour Organisation had predicted that youth unemployment in Bangladesh would more than double in six months unless the government takes concerted efforts to create jobs. A Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies study also said that about 13 per cent of people became unemployed in the first three months of the Covid outbreak that began in March 2020. About a hundred thousand workers lost job only in the apparel sector, the most thriving industry of Bangladesh which is also labour intensive. During this period the new labour force has also become available. In the absence of suitable employment in their own country, these people are now looking for opportunities elsewhere.
Bangladesh has been a prominent exporter of labour to the Gulf countries and South East Asian countries. But the economy even in these countries has been hit leading to fewer intakes of migrant workers from Bangladesh. Though the penetration of internet has helped Bangladesh and nearly 2 lakh people have been recruited using the online method. But the number is not sufficient to absorb the available labour force. Usually Bangladesh sends 7 – 8 lakh people abroad as migrant workers.
There is no doubt that the Bangladesh economy has done relatively well in the decade before the pandemic and the country has come out from least developed countries (LDCs) grouping and now aspires to be a middle income country. But this growth is uneven. This growth is limited to only certain regions of Bangladesh. Besides, there is great economic disparity which has left large majority of people still poor. What is worse, the pandemic has also been a blow and large number of Bangladeshis who were lifted above the poverty line have once again slid back. It is also true that Bangladesh has done well in a number of social indicators but that is largely due to the effort of large number of NGOs that are active in Bangladesh. Improvement in social indicators in the absence of economic opportunities can’t stop local people from migrating and when legal means are not available people resort to illegal ways.
According to the India’s border guarding force BSF 3,204 persons were apprehended in 2020 for illegally entering India from Bangladesh and 60 of them, whose nationalities were established, were handed over to Bangladesh. Obviously, the number of arrested persons by the BSF is only tip of the iceberg. Majority of the illegal migrants just disappear in various Indian cities. India being the next door neighbor of Bangladesh has to bear the large impact of this phenomenon of illegal migration. Unfortunately, the issue is so complex that it defies any easy solution. Politicization of the issue has only made matters worse. Moreover, Bangladesh is among the few countries with which India has friendly relationship in otherwise troubled South Asian neighbourhood.
The complexity surrounding the issue of illegal migration did not allow India to raise it when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bangladesh in March 2021. Perhaps there were some other reasons as well. For instance, the March visit of PM Modi was somewhat different. It was to celebrate the 50th anniversary liberation of Bangladesh. This was also the 50th year of establishment of India –Bangladesh diplomatic relationship. Moreover, Bangladesh was also celebrating the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, considered as father of the Bangladeshi nation. Keeping the sensitivity of Bangladesh India did not mention illegal migration during this visit. But the issue of illegal migration can’t be swept under the carpet given its magnitude and the sentiments of people in the northeastern India who fear being swamped by the people continuously coming from across the border. Attempt should be made to sort out this issue in an amicable way without hurting the India-Bangladesh bilateral relationship which is perhaps enjoying its best phase.