Migrant workers walk along a road in Hyderabad in southern India’s Telangana state on May 4, 2020, on a long journey by foot to reach their home states during the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown. (Photo: Noah Seelam/AFP)
The world today may be characterized by two major phenomena: the digital revolution, which has utterly transformed the way in which we work and play, and the large movements of people across frontiers.
Of the second, there are three kinds of movements. Firstly, tourism, largely a first-world phenomenon. Then migration and refugees, largely in and from the third world. Refugees flee persecution in their native countries to a safer place elsewhere. Migrants seek more gainful employment and a better life for their children. Often the lines between the two are blurred.
Do Indians migrate? Of course they do. The world is full of pockets of Indians from migrant families who now regard themselves as fully integrated in the countries of their choice. Kamala Harris, Leo Varadkar, Indra Nooyi and V.S. Naipaul are only the most conspicuous.
But there is another aspect to migration, less spoken about but still a source of tension in many places, especially large and diverse countries like India. It is the internal displacement of communities, where people must leave their ancestral birthplaces in search of work and security.
Where internal migration is concerned, it is mostly the poor who migrate, and a significant proportion are tribal people, uprooted and displaced from their villages and communities because of climate change and development. The latter is really a form of expropriation and theft.
In India, internal migrants mostly come from Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh.
Tribal people have no “big city” skills. Where they migrate to urban areas, they fill the unskilled categories of work — construction, domestic help, small hotel services, rickshaw pullers, vendors, both men and women — and populate the shanty towns and slums on the urban periphery.
Of growing concern is the rising incidence of sexual trafficking of both boys and girls, especially across the cities of northern India. For in times of hectic change, there are always evil men ready to prey on the vulnerable.
Where do these migrants go? Largely to the southern states as they offer better opportunities for employment than the north.
In Goa, fishing and tourism are the best sources of work. Kerala offers the maximum social security — its minimum daily wages for casual labor starting at 400 rupees (US$5.50) are among the highest anywhere — but the cities of the Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Telangana are also big destinations for tribal people in search of work.
Who benefits from migration?
Financially speaking, the quick answer is everyone, not just local families but even the local economy.
Foreign remittances have shored up the economies of many third-world nations. At a smaller level, easily 80 percent of the income in most of the villages of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat is comprised of cash inflows from migration. At the level of the individual families of Dalits, tribal people and Muslims, about one third of their income is from remittances.
There are other less tangible benefits, but real all the same. The status of women invariably improves. As workers in the construction, garment and agriculture sectors and as domestic helps, women have moved outside the family enclosure and become more self-reliant.
The lengthy absence of men from their families has also made women more vocal in decision-making, whether in the family or the village. Conversely, it has also meant that, as migrants, women have sought and found marriage partners outside the traditional circles of tribe and clan.
If migration is a benefit both for the immigrant and the host community, why do we see such opposition to it? That’s not an easy question to answer.
At its root, the antipathy to migrants comes from our deepest irrational fears and prejudices. Some of these are based on skin color and race, some on religion and language, and all of them come from migrants of an earlier time, now successfully integrated, who oppose the influx of “people not like us.”
The only answer to such hostility is to embrace diversity as a principle for society and to abide by the rule of law to make it work.
Is migration a sign of our times?
In the 1980s, Jesuit General Pedro Arrupe expressed his concern over the “boat people” — the millions who were fleeing expansionist communism in Southeast Asia and who desperately craved for asylum.
With them in mind, Arrupe founded the Jesuit Refugee Service. Fifty years later, it remains one of the world’s most active non-governmental organizations in providing the homeless with shelter, accompaniment and advocacy.
In the wake of Covid-19 and the damage it has inflicted on India’s economy, there’s a similar need for a vision for the millions of internally displaced people in this country. Collaborative efforts are required on a vast scale for more secure working conditions, shelter and upward mobility for such people.
Is this, then, what Pope Paul VI called one of the “signs of the times” as he appealed for our initiative, our effort and our presence?
Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.