The Indian embassy in Beirut has an unusual problem on its hands, says the Hindustan Times.
While the last of the 2,000 Indian evacuees left by naval ship on July 26, there’s been a steady stream of Indians turning up at the embassy after that. The problem: most of them are illegal immigrants with no visas. Many don’t even have a passport or a photocopy of any proof of identity.
And, had the situation not been so bad in Beirut, they would never have come forward. The fact is, there are thousands of such illegal immigrants from India across Europe and America. Even as the India growth story is attracting foreign investors and talent—and India is supposed to be where the action is—the lure of going abroad at any cost remains strong.
Who are these immigrants? The poor—from Bihar and UP migrate within India to Mumbai, Delhi, Punjab. From Punjab—which is one of the richest states of India, they dream of migrating abroad. Singer Rabbi Shergill sums up the story in his song Jugni
Jugni ja varhi Punjab
Jithe parhe likhe bekaar
Vech Zameena Javan Bahar
Uthey maran jhadu
Uthey gori len viyah
Pichay tabbar take rah
Veer meriya ve Jugni kehndi aa
Ek Navin Udari Lehndi aa
(Jugni blazed into Punjab
Where the educated are unemployed
Selling off their lands and going abroad
Where they sweep floors
Where they marry a white girl
Back home the family awaits their return…)
In the land of ‘milk and honey’, the milk isn’t creamy enough and the honey not sweet enough for the average young person. Almost every family has a relative or two abroad—who bring back tales and pictorial evidence of a better life. And so, people are willing to take the risk.
Even if you end up sweeping floors… the floors there are cleaner, you see!
Passing them by
The fact is that there are more opportunities today —but only for certain kinds of people. Those who are either very entrepreneurial, or those who have earned degrees which are in demand. The former seek out opportunities, employers seek the latter out.
But the vast majority of people — the average Jais and Veerus — don’t fall in either category. The option before them is to till the land —like their forefathers or work in a chhota mota capacity somewhere. In this dictionary, the ‘MBA’ acquires a whole new meaning— ‘Mera Beta Abroad’.
There is a whole industry to cater to this aspiration. No, they don’t teach you how to crack GRE or TOEFL. Theirs is a simple DHL style delivery business: getting you to your destination. And it’s apparently a Rs 1,000-crore industry.
A report in The Tribune some years ago noted that 10-20,000 able bodied youth from Punjab pay between Rs 2.5 to 10 lakh to gain ‘safe passage’ abroad. Lebanon is apparently one of the ‘softer’ countries, where getting visas is not a big problem. And that, it seems is where the actual racket starts:
The prospective candidates, carrying only rucksacks or backpacks, endure squalid travelling conditions on their way to their destinations. At times they have to crisscross the countryside at night, through snowclad hills and hostile terrain. They even cross rivers and channels at the risk of getting swept away by strong currents. Some may get attacked by wild animals. They survive on just a few pieces of dry bread, some tea and water…
Once in a while you hear of a boat tragedy—taking with it stowaways to a watery grave. Or a sad case like the 58 Chinese illegal immigrants who suffocated in the back of a truck on their way to Britain. But more often than not, the ‘delivery’ is completed—Germany, Greece, Italy and Austria are some of the favoured countries.
The immigrant manages to find some very basic employment, pick up the local language and if lucky to be fair skinned, even pass off as a local. In France, I met one such boy in a grocery store. I thought he was Algerian or maybe Italian. Overhearing my husband and I speaking in Hindi, he sidled up to us and whispered, “Yahan se mat kharido… It’s a day-and-night shop… everything here is more expensive.”
The boy spoke fluent French, of course. But I’m sure he was being paid below minimum wage.
When governments ask what can we do to curb illegal immigration the answer is nothing—because there will always be demand for labour which is willing to be exploited. Just like Bangladeshis are flocking to India and getting employment—because they are willing to work at even lower rates than our already lowly paid labour.
So jobs may be shifting to India, but there will always be enough Indians willing to shift for jobs. Until bombs start raining from the skies and suddenly—you would do anything to get home.
(This column originally appeared on www.sify.com)