As long as humankind has existed, misery has been its companion. Poverty, disease, civilian strife, persecution and wars have brought untold misery to humankind. There is no greater misery than having to flee one’s home and hearth and seek refuge in another country whose people may speak a different language or practise a different religion or follow a different culture. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at the end of 2014, there were about 59.5 million persons who had been displaced because of conflict, war or persecution.
Following Partition, India and Pakistan endured the terrible tragedy of mass displacement. Millions of Hindus and Sikhs left Pakistan for India and millions of Muslims left India for Pakistan. It was the last — and the darkest — chapter of our inspiring freedom struggle. Thanks to the statesmanship of Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, India demonstrated its humanity and emerged as a shining example of tolerance, accommodation and generosity. Yet, there were shameful aspects to that story. Neither theocratic Pakistan nor secular India could prevent the killing of thousands of people who were moving from one country to the other.
Many of us have heard first-hand accounts of refugees and how they seized the opportunity and re-built their lives virtually brick by brick. Punjab, Haryana and Delhi abound with examples of refugees who became successful in different walks of life. Two refugees rose to become Prime Minister of India.
Europe’s Humanity on Test
Europe is no stranger to the phenomenon of refugees. Post World War II, European countries accepted refugees. Europe prospered, and not the least among the reasons for Europe’s prosperity was the energy brought by the refugees. They were hardworking, disciplined and ambitious and integrated with the communities in which they made their new homes.
Despite that history, for some days in the last few weeks, there was despair that Europe had abandoned its humanity, until a wise leader, Angela Merkel, brought sobriety and statesmanship to urge her fellow leaders to find a solution to the problem. The picture of hundreds of Germans holding placards with the word “Willkommen” and embracing refugees came as a salve to hearts that were devastated by the photograph of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body lying face down in the water on the coast of Turkey. Europe, after some anxious weeks, rediscovered its humanity, although there are still some holdouts like Hungary.
Quite often, people confuse refugees for immigrants. Refugees are victims who face persecution or death or both in their own countries. They have no choice but to flee their home countries.
Migration is Another Issue
Migrants are a different category. They have a choice, and they exercise the choice of leaving their own countries usually in search of better economic opportunities. Many people migrate because of abject poverty or lack of jobs. However, many educated or well-to-do people also migrate. Witness the number of people who emigrate every year from India to the United States, Canada, Australia or New Zealand seeking better education or a better job or a better environment or a better political system in which to live and raise families.
The United States is a nation of immigrants, but there is fierce opposition to immigrants (allegedly illegal) from Mexico and other South American countries. Europe needs immigrants to sustain its economy and support its ageing population. The number required has been estimated at 40 million people over the next five years, but there are governments and right-wing political parties who are spearheading the opposition to immigrants.
The lesson of history is that migration cannot be stopped, it can only be managed. Countries are struggling to find a model for managing migration that would be appropriate to their situation.
No Place for Prejudice
India has, from time to time, faced the problem of refugees, the most recent being a few thousand from Sri Lanka. Refugees who flee persecution or death must be welcomed regardless of their race or religion. Recently, there was outrage when some countries (Hungary, Australia) sought to give preference to Christian refugees, thus betraying their religious and cultural prejudice. But why was there no outrage when the Government of India formulated a policy to “exempt Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals belonging to minority communities from the relevant provisions of the Passport Act and the Foreigners Act”? The press release stated that the policy will apply only to Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists. What about Shias, Ahmadis, atheists and rationalists? When I first visited the India-Bangladesh border, the thought that occurred to me was “this land was one country, Partition made it two, and liberation made it three”. India’s borders are quite porous. India cannot allow itself to be overwhelmed by poor immigrants in search of economic opportunities when a large number of Indians are themselves very poor. In order to manage migration, border fencing is necessary and reasonable border controls must be in place. Time-bound work permits, instead of permanent residency or long-term visas, can be issued liberally but time limits must be enforced strictly. Above all, we can help our neighbours prosper: a prosperous region is the best antidote to mass migration.
Every nation must remain mindful of the distinction between refugees and immigrants. If they do, reasonable solutions can be found to both problems.