The attempted detention of two Indians, Sumit Sahdev and Lakhbir Singh, on May 13, in Glasgow, Scotland, by British immigration enforcement officials set off street protests and a heated debate on the UK Home Office’s policy of unilaterally expelling irregular migrants from the country. The incident took place soon after the May 4 signing of the India-UK memorandum of understanding on the Migration and Mobility Partnership, which includes “cooperation relating to the prevention and combating of illegal migration”.

Sahdev and Singh are part of the estimated 100,000 “irregular” Indian immigrants in the UK, a group that comprises unskilled and semi-skilled youth largely from Punjab and Haryana. Many are from other states too, like Jammu and Kashmir, who take the illegal migrant route into better-paying global labour markets like the UK.

Their circuitous travel arrangements either through Central and East European Union countries or from North Africa, and sometimes directly through visas overstayed, are arranged by recruiters-cum-travel agents who have been running a lucrative business in Punjab since the 1990s. Charging anywhere between Rs 10 lakh-Rs 12 lakhs per person, these agents have a high success rate because they are well plugged into global human smuggling networks.

Lack of data

The timing for this post-Brexit UK MoU with India is significant: there are stringent border controls in place since January 31, 2020, making it imperative for both nations to address this nettlesome issue. Conversely, the MoU will increase visas as per the new Points-Based Immigration System for Indian professionals between 18 years-30 years. It also introduces a two-year work permit for Indian students who have completed university degrees in the UK without their undergoing a “labour market test”. It is the latter that is part of a larger effort to elevate India-UK bilateral ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

The matter is complicated by a lack of current and credible data of irregular Indian immigrants in Britain, leading to over/underestimations by policymakers and media on both sides. Britain claims over 100,000 irregulars, while India says it is a fraction of that, just 2,000. Data discrepancy and unreliable statistics impair mutual trust and complicate building the necessary infrastructure for plan execution.

Migration to Britain, legal and illegal, from India, is not new. Colonial India was part of a global circulation of traders, administrators and labourers, whose people were sent overseas to British and other European colonies. Indian sailors (lascars) were a common sight in London’s dockyards in the 19th century. The First World War saw Indian regiments – many of them Sikh – disembarking in London to fight as part of the Allied troops on the Continent. Most returned home, but many didn’t. As early as 1908, the UK enacted the Aliens Act whose only condition was that an immigrant should be able to support himself and his dependents.

The early immigrants, many Sikhs, were already settling in small numbers across all major towns in England as cloth retailers as early as the 1930s. India’s Partition and independence in 1947, saw a substantial influx of Punjabi immigrants to the UK right into the 1970s, many settling in Southall (London). Mostly men went first by leveraging already established kinsmen in the UK, in order to find work and settle down. Women and children followed.

This fairly liberal policy towards the inflow of immigrants from Commonwealth countries – not just India – was upended when a more stringent Commonwealth Immigration Act was enacted in 1961, 1965, and then 1968. The East African Indian crisis beginning with Idi Amin’s expulsion of Indians holding British passports in 1972 and the flight of Indians from Kenya and Tanzania, triggered by those nations’ Africanisation policy (nationalisation of Indian-owned businesses), resulted in a large influx of these Indians into the UK under a quota system. This East African Indian community – many Gujarati-speaking – count amongst its numbers UK’s Home Minister Priti Patel.

Today, UK’s Indian diaspora of 1.6 million are well-integrated and well-regarded because of their substantial contribution – in spite of small numbers – to the British economy and its multi-cultural ethos.

Community networks

But it became problematic with the inflow of irregulars since the 1990s, mostly young men who astutely weighed their options in the international labour markets. The attractions for the youth of Punjab and Haryana to be “irregulars” in the UK, is the support of a pre-existing village and community network there. The economics work out – even when working in UK’s grey economy at less than full salary, without any social benefits or even a contract to protect them from exploitation.

Therefore, regardless of the costs and risks involved, the migration continues, for two reasons.   First, economic difficulties and fewer opportunities at home and inspiration from the success stories of those who have migrated,  impel them to undertake desperate journeys. Second, the continuing demand for flexible and cheap labour in the informal sectors of the British economy, sustains the illegal migration stream from India.

Their non-representation in official records and estimates, obscures their wellbeing and protection, as seen during the current Covid-19 pandemic. The remittances they send home are also unofficial, keeping them out of India’s GDP calculations.

This is not the first time India and the UK have attempted to cooperate on illegal migration from India. In 2018, a similar MoU was discussed, but India refused to sign it, citing disagreement with the UK authorities’ proposal to use DNA tests to establish the nationality of the suspected migrants without identification documents. This time too, the critical gaps in policy intent and implementation persist, including the continuing data hole and executive tardiness.  Most critically, the two governments do not attempt to address the root causes of illegal migration, focusing instead on the repatriation and readmission of irregular Indian nationals.

It is time for a human-centric approach. India and the UK must promptly devise a formal system for data collection and sharing. India must address the post-return economic reintegration measures for those repatriated. States like Punjab and Haryana must create more employment opportunities at home and keep a strict check on the fraudulent travel agencies and consultancies operating from these states.

They can also upskill the prospective migrants to meet the specific visa requirements of the destination countries and match the sectoral-wise workforce demand in the destinations so that they can migrate legally.

Divya Balan is the Assistant Professor at FLAME University.
Sifra Lentin is the Bombay History Fellow at Gateway House.
This article was written under the aegis of the Gateway House-FLAME Policy Lab.