Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Is there A Tendency to Associate Illegal Migrants with Terrorists? What are the Implications for Human Rights and Politics of Such Association?

Tarangini Sriraman

The UK government (Tony Blair’s government) has for the last few years been working on a project that will record the detailed identities of residents…the project involves storing such delicate information in a national database. This will be backed by the distribution of identity cards to all residents. The overwhelming concern of the UK government is to check the entry of illegal migrants and to keep a check on possible terrorist movement. Successive Indian governments have similarly been preoccupied with a national identity card that captures the identities of residents, both citizens and non-citizens: the preoccupation again being the need to weed out migrants and crack down on terrorists. The US government is planning through the Real ID Act to upgrade existing identity cards with biometric technology as a means to secure identities from terrorists and make it difficult for migrants to stay without these cards. Israel has issued identity cards marking out card-holders to be Arab, Jew or other. Those who do not possess these cards are either migrants or terrorists.

In all these cases, governments though they officially drive a wedge between the categories of migrant and terrorist, there is a tendency in bureaucratic thinking and policy-making above all to confuse these two, to associate migrant with terrorist and vice-versa. I intend to provide illustrations of this in this paper through select examples taken from countries like India, Israel and Russia.

Indian experience of equating migration with terrorism: The National Identification System Home Affairs Network (NISHAN) project in India can be traced to the successive governments’ need to check illegal migration which is described often in officialese as infiltration. The Congress government led by Narasimha Rao sought to do something about the unmanageable numbers of Bangladeshi migrants pouring into the states of Assam, Bengal, Delhi and Maharashtra. No less a site than Wikipedia reports that there has been a tendency to link the rise of terrorism with the presence of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Both intelligence sources and media reports (both print and web media) corroborate these claims. The strategy employed by these reports is like this…they carry out surveys and interview residents to establish the number of illegal migrants who have been able to procure voters ID cards and other identity cards. And every time a terrorist attack happens, they lose no time publicizing these statistics, thereby indirectly suggesting to the government that a crackdown on migrants is imperative for the fight against terrorism. Sometimes state governments carry out these studies by themselves: the Assam government spent Rs.1.7 billion between January 2001 and September 2006, which resulted in identification of 9,149 foreigners, most of whom were Bangladeshis. S.P.Sinha, a scholar on the North-East writes that most of the insurgencies taking place there were owing entirely to the influx of illegal migrants into India’s borders. The Chittagong Hill Tracts of erstwhile East Pakistan and current-day Bangladesh account for nearly all the insurgent groups of India's northeast. In Tripura, the large influx of refugees from East Pakistan and the unlawful transfer of tribal lands incited anti-Bengali militancy, S.P.Sinha claims. Sinha concludes his many claims by suggesting that for India to breathe easier in the North-East, it must have efficient administrators and curb illegal migration. Other reports suggest that the increasing numbers of Bangladeshis in the North-East is to the effect of changing the demographic profile. Even if such claims about Bangladeshis being involved in terrorist activities may be true, there is little debate about how much of it is in response to ethnic nationalism, regional genocide resorted to by Bodo rebels, ULFA activists so on.

Examples from the Russian Federation: Russia has regarded Chechnya as a rogue state ever since the disintegration of the USSR. When the Chechen National Congress broke away from Soviet Russia, the new Russian Federation denounced the new Chechen government. Successive Russian governments have wanted Chechnya to be part of the Russian Federation, they have done everything to alienate Chechen IDPs. Russian authorities, namely the Kremlin, immigration authorities and Russian policemen have used the rhetoric of terrorism to deny human rights of housing, employment and the right to travel to Chechen IDPs. Where camps for IDPs were set up, Russian migration authorities compelled approximately 20,000 displaced people to leave the tent camps and return to Chechnya. Kate Desormeau who writes on Chechen IDPs records that Chechen IDPs were denied many rights by bureaucratic coercion, having officially prejudiced residents against these IDPs as potential terrorists. This is justified by the Russians’ policy of ‘securitization of migration’, where migrants are bureaucratically made out to be security risks.Human Rights Watch specifies that officials have constantly harassed displaced persons by threatening them with arrest on false charges and withdrawal of food allowances. They have predominantly threatened IDPs with cutting of gas and electricity supplies during winter months. What is more, Russian authorities have barred international agencies from distributing relief to Chechen IDPs who lacked documentation. Such threats are to effect of forcing Chechens to return to their homes: in all this Russia has blatantly violated obligations under international law. Constantly, it has taken refuge under the claim that its crackdown on Chechen IDPs contributes to the international campaign against terrorism.

Israeli treatment of migrants: Much of the politics surrounding Isreal’s terror campaign against Palestine in occupied territories like West Bank and Gaza is far too well-documented to be cited in detail here. However, less well-known is the drive to clean its own mainland of Palestinian workers. Though Israel used to rely excessively on Palestinian workers to work on farms and construction sites, after an uprising in West Bank in 2000, it brought in foreign workers to replace such migrants, regarding the Palestinians in Israel as a security risk. Owing to such drives, illegal migrants have lost whatever minimal housing and employment rights, seeking sanctuary in makeshift churches. Israel instead of being accountable to international law for all the deportations it is carrying out, is conducting voluntary repatriation programmes for Palestinians.

The fallouts of equating migrants with terrorists, laying down policies and releasing statistics that amounts to doing so has been largely in the nature of human rights violations. States have had a variety of agendas to fulfill by such association of migration with terrorism: be it protectionism, ethnic nationalism, security so on. Parties in countries like Israel and Russia are impelled by local prejudices to contest elections by promising tough action against such migration (not simply immigration). By fuelling the opinion that migrants apart from being a drain on states’ resources, a threat to the local labour forces and the cause of increased incidence of terrorism, such an association (of illegal migration with terrorism), vitiates politics and takes away human rights of migrants. What Kate Desormeau terms securitization of migration is something that turns the discourse of illegal migration into a discourse of security and terrorism and this is common across countries.


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