India ranked the lowest among 52 countries assessed for key indices of migrant inclusivity in 2020, shows the recently launched Migrant Integration Policy Index.
India scored the least, 24 out of 100, far lower than the average of 50, putting it in a category where migrant integration is deemed “denied”.
The index, a policy tool that measures a country’s national policies on international immigrants across eight parameters, is published jointly by two European think-tanks, the Migration Policy Group of Brussels and the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, and was first released in 2014.
While other Asian countries such as China and Indonesia have improved their integration policies, India’s score has remained unchanged in the last five years. India’s Migrant Integration Policy Index scores fell below 20 in key policy areas including the labour market, education, health, access to nationality and anti-discrimination actions.
This is significant for two reasons: Although not the world’s most important migrant destination, India is home to 5 million immigrants, according to the Census 2011. Data from 2019 from the Population Division of the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs noted a decline in immigrant numbers in India from 7.6 million in 1990 to 5.1 million in 2019.
Although the number of refugees and asylum seekers has gone down between 1990 and 2019 (from 212,700 to 207,600), they constitute an increasing proportion of the total immigrant population in India (2.8% in 1990 to 4% in 2019). Similar estimates from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees suggest that the number of refugees and asylum seekers in 2020 was 210,201, according to their January 2020 India Factsheet.
Further, 95.3% of India’s immigrants in 2019 also originated in the same SDG region (Central and Southern Asia comprising neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan) – a number that has not changed significantly from 1990 (96.8%).
This characteristic of immigration to India is also highlighted in a 2017 article by the Pew Research Center. However, the existing immigrant population continues to face integration barriers in various aspects of daily life, which impact their entry into the workplace, access to justice, and educational experiences, concluded the Migrant Integration Policy Index analysis.
India also sends out the world’s largest number of emigrants – 17.5 million as per estimates from the International Organisation for Migration’s (UN-IOM) World Migration Report 2020, and is, therefore, a critical voice in immigrant integration.
Migrants move seeking better livelihoods and education, so an increase in immigration rates is an indicator of a country’s growth and development trajectory. As India develops in the coming decades and takes on a leadership role in the South Asian region, integration of immigrants and their issues will only become more important, experts say.
“There is very little by way of comprehensive immigration policy in India today – access to social security benefits or the labour market is limited and often foreign nationals face discrimination as reported in the media,” said migration policy expert Meera Sethi, formerly of the UN-IOM.
Originally devised to measure the integration of Third Country Nationals – or non-European Union nationals – in the EU, Migrant Integration Policy Index is now a major policy tool to analyse and measure migrant integration in destination countries around the world: in developed countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and Norway, as well as in developing countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, China, India and Turkey. The assessment for India was conducted by Migration Policy Group’s country partner India Migration Now, a Mumbai-based research non-profit.
Low scores across key indices
India’s overall Migrant Integration Policy Index score is the lowest because of below-average scores in all policy areas except for family reunion (assessing how easy it is for immigrants to reunite with their families) where the score is 75, compared to the Migrant Integration Policy Index average of 58. The country fares worse in certain policy areas such as anti-discrimination, health, labour market mobility and access to nationality.
In the area of labour market mobility, India scored 17 while the Migrant Integration Policy Index average is 51. Accessing an employment visa in India carries certain conditions – only those from highly skilled backgrounds earning more than $25,000 per annum are eligible.
Furthermore, employment visas are not granted for jobs for which qualified Indians are available, according to information put out by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Foreign residents on business visas have the option of self-employment, but no measures exist to promote access to the labour market or provide support to improve professional skills or opportunities.
In education too, India scored 19, less than half the Migrant Integration Policy Index average of 40. There are no measures in place in the country that recognise the unique requirements of immigrant children. They only benefit from general measures available for all children in India under the Right to Education Act, 2009. This is a lacuna evident for India’s interstate migrants as well, who face exclusion when they move from one state to another, found IMN’s IMPEX analysis of 2020. Typically, states require migrants to furnish proof of residence, which can be in the form of a domicile certificate or a school transfer certificate from the destination state, which migrants often find difficult to produce because they are not domiciles of the destination state and had acquired education in their source states, the IMPEX analysis showed.
These issues are further aggravated for immigrant families and while many have managed to utilise Right to Education provisions, their children often face discrimination and cultural barriers at Indian schools, according to this January 2020 article in The Wire, which focuses on the Rohingya refugee community. Refugee communities such as the Rohingya are reliant on philanthropic initiatives and the work of NGOs to fill these crucial policy gaps, according to an earlier 2018 field report from The Wire.
In the area of political participation, India scored 0. The right to vote, to stand in elections, and form political parties/associations are limited to the citizens of India. These limitations often also extend to interstate migrants as voter identity is connected to the electoral roll at the place of origin, found IMN’s IMPEX analysis. Although Indian citizens are eligible to transfer to new electoral rolls when they move, the process is not easy, particularly for short-term seasonal migrants who move often.
Poor access to health
In the field of health, immigrants and asylum seekers face additional requirements to access the Indian health system and enjoy little information or support targeted to meet their specific health needs. Schemes such as Ayushman Bharat extend to those families categorised in the lower-income brackets as defined by the socio-economic and caste census of 2011 and therefore exclude immigrants. However, schemes under the Integrated Child Development Services, which provides supplementary nutrition, pre-school and non-formal education, immunisation, and health check-ups to children aged 0 years to 6 years, can usually be availed without proof of identity.
The services of public health facilities like primary healthcare centres are also open to immigrant communities and asylum seekers in India – both of these options are recommended for the communities by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in India as well. These schemes may be utilised by immigrants in the same manner as RTE is.
Schemes of the Delhi government such as the Aam Aadmi Mohalla Clinic serve all residents living in areas deemed eligible (usually slum and jhuggi jhopri areas) and are available to immigrants as well.
Specific health schemes exist for Tibetan and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees as part of central level integration policies for these communities – these include the Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy of 2014 and specific schemes for maternal and child health by the government of Tamil Nadu for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. However, these communities number approximately 200,000 in total and only form 3%-4% of the estimated legal immigrant population. Covid-19 has aggravated the existing policy gaps for refugee communities, as IndiaSpend reported in April 2020 and as argued by this September 2020 opinion editorial in Migration Policy Institute, a migration research think-tank based out of Washington DC, USA.
India’s score in the policy area of anti-discrimination is 9, compared to the Migrant Integration Policy Index average of 71. There is currently no legislation related to discrimination against immigrant communities. Article 15 of the Constitution of India addresses direct and/or indirect discrimination and/or harassment and/or instruction to discriminate on grounds of race, ethnicity, religion and belief – a provision that only exists for citizens.
It has also been argued that these provisions are, in themselves, inadequate, and India needs a comprehensive internal anti-discrimination law. Discrimination against immigrant communities is an issue and has occurred against various refugee groups as well as student groups from African countries such as Nigeria who have faced racist attacks.
In India, the path to permanent residence is mainly linked to the ability to fulfil certain economic requirements. However, even permanent residents are denied equal treatment with Indian nationals in key areas of life such as social security and assistance. For accessing citizenship in India, a person can apply for citizenship by naturalisation if they meet certain qualifications such as residence in India or service in the central government for a certain period of time: (i) for the 12 months immediately preceding the application for citizenship, and (ii) for 11 of the 14 years preceding the 12-month period, as specified in The Citizenship Act, 1955 Act. The process of accessing citizenship requires more than 10 years of residence and India does not offer dual nationality.
Among the eight policy areas, India has the highest score in family reunion. This policy area assesses if foreign residents can reunite with their families – for instance, whether legally resident foreign citizens can sponsor their entire families. Whether family members need prerequisites such as learning a language before departure for the destination country.
Whether the state protects family members from discretionary procedures (such as in deciding permit durations, considering personal circumstances when allowing or refusing entry, and giving the applicant a chance to appeal) and whether the family members get the same rights as their sponsor. Although India scores 75 in the policy area and many foreign citizens are eligible to apply for their dependent family members, according to information provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs, there are no additional integration measures for these reunited families.
Flawed public perception
The understanding of the impacts and contributions of immigrants to developing countries’ economies is limited. Besides adding to the overall social and cultural diversity, immigrants from neighbouring countries such as Nepal have been contributing to the Indian economy in the informal sector as construction workers, domestic help, cleaners, bar and restaurant workers, and petty traders. Unfortunately, such contributions have not been assessed or measured, found a 2015 paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly.
Cross-border migrants often face harassment, are exploited by brokers, paid irregularly and sometimes substantially less than what they are promised by the employers, and are often ill-treated by the border security forces – as reported in this 2015 research study by the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, which conducted fieldwork with cross-border Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants. India has no formal immigration policy framework but existing policies regulate the entry and exit of people through the border.
The Indian government has also set up special tribunals for the determination of the question of whether a person is an illegal immigrant as per the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983. Beyond this, there are ad hoc policies and executive orders for the entry and rehabilitation of Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees and for religious minorities from neighbouring Muslim majority countries. Even the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 – facilitating citizenship for religious minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh – is estimated to actually benefit only 31,313 people, as detailed in the joint parliamentary committee report on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (then, a Bill) in 2016.
The lack of policy intervention is further aggravated by the public perception and rhetoric around illegal immigration (mostly from Bangladesh), which have often been election issues in India. The data, however, do not bear this out: Improved developmental outcomes in Bangladesh in recent years have brought the two countries on par, argues this opinion editorial in The Indian Express – as a result, immigrants from Bangladesh may no longer be seeking out India as a destination.
In a fast globalising world, as Indian emigrants in various destination countries benefit from effective integration schemes, policy in India for the country’s over 5 million immigrant population has clearly not kept pace, said experts.
“Countries have already started to invest in ensuring basic rights and a secure future for international migrants. Now, they need to guarantee migrants the same equal opportunities as nationals,” said Giacomo Solano, policy and statistical analyst at MPG, Brussels, where the Migrant Integration Policy Index was formulated.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.