Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Introduction: The Boat People

"2016, the Mediterranean is a mass grave," Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). 

This calendar year has already been marked by serious refugee crisis all over the world. Large scale movement of people from different countries of Asia and the middle East, the knee-jerk reactions of most governments, the sympathy of some populations, the Pope's naming the displaced people "god's children", the linking of terrorism with migration in popular imagination, and the increasing awareness that one needs to view all migration as forced migration, 
Within this scenario, especially with respect to the Rohingyas and refugees from Syria, the boat, both as a metaphor for going from one country to another, and a a material facilitator of the same. From Aylan Kurdi's death by drowning, to the refusal to let the Rohingya boats dock, and the reported death of  400 Somali refugees trying to reach Europe by boat, this special issue of refugee watch online seeks to look at historical instances of large scale displacement via boat as well as the current crises. 

This issue also includes two field work based reports on urbanisation in Nepal and the Indian city, Guwahati, as well as a report on women uprooted by river erosion in Bengal. 

Samata Biswas (bsamata@gmail.com). 

Boat People: Uniting Syria and Vietnam

Snehashish Mitra (biltu0717@gmail.com) is a research assistant at Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group. 

As Aylan Kurdi, the three year old Syrian boy of Kurdis ethnic background lied lifeless on a sea beach of Turkey, it depicted the desperation of over 4 million Syrian refugees. The image circulated round the globe prompted international response over the issue of rehabilitating the Syrian refugee. The crisis also evoked a similar trajectory of events in another part of the world in a different time involving the ‘Vietnamese Boat People’. As Thuan Le Elston, a member of the editorial board of the daily USA TODAY of Vietnamese background opines, it might be necessary to take a look back at the case to Vietnamese Boat People to find a reasonable solution for the Syrian refugee crisis.
When the Americans lost the Vietnam War there were many citizens of Vietnam, especially in South Vietnam who did not wish to stay in Vietnam. Those with influence were airlifted out by the Americans but many had to make do with crowding onto leaky boats and making the journey from Vietnam to the gulf of Thailand. Nearly 800,000 Vietnamese fled by boat, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In doing so they unwittingly wrote themselves into modern pirate history. The Vietnamese populace who tried to flee Vietnam over boat is termed as ‘Vietnamese Boat People’; they seemed to encapsulate all the suffering Vietnam had suffered from1965 to 1975. Despite the end of the Vietnam War, tragedy for the people of Vietnam continued into 1978-79. The term ‘Boat People’ not only applies to the refugees who fled Vietnam but also to the people of Cambodia and Laos who did the same but tend to come under the same umbrella term. The term ‘Vietnamese Boat People’ tends to be associated with only those in the former South who fled the new Communist government established in post-war Vietnam. The exodus was the biggest in peacetime the world had seen. The boat people chose to face the adversities of the sea and the pirates rather than live under communist regime with the genuine prospect of attending reeducation camps and face persecution. About 10% of the boat people died without ever reaching shore, from pirate attacks, drowning or starvation. Those who survived, overwhelmed Vietnam’s neighbors as well as Western nations where the refugees wanted to resettle. 

Empire Strikes Back: The Tragic Journey of Komagata Maru

Subhas Ranjan Chakraborty (srchakraborty@gmail.com) is an eminent historian and a retired professor of History of Presidency College, Kolkata. 

The Journey
    Baba Gurdit Singh, a successful Sikh businessman, decided to help the poor Sikh and other Indian migrants in East and South East Asia to migrate to Canada hopefully for a better life. He chartered the ship Komagata Maru at Hong Kong and the ship reached Vancouver in British Columbia on 23 May, 1914 with 376 passengers on board. The Canadian immigration authorities allowed only 22 passengers to disembark on the ground that other passengers did not fulfill the requirements of continuous journey for landing under Canadian law. The ship with all its passengers was detained in the Vancouver Harbour for two months till 23 July without adequate food and water and was ultimately obliged to return literally at gun point when a Canadian navy cruiser was brought with its guns exposed to the Burrard Inlet. Gurdit had to negotiate his return and was allowed to store provisions for the return journey. The ship left Vancouver on 23 July and while it stopped at Yokohama and Kobe in Japan and in Singapore, the passengers were not allowed to land. The British authorities eventually decided that the ship should go to Calcutta. On 26 September the ship was stopped by the authorities at Kulpi where Donald, the Disrict Magistrate of 24 Paraganas, Slocock of the Criminal Intelligence Office, Government of India and Humphreys, the Deputy Commissioner of a Punjab district boarded the ship. They were accompanied by police constables and officers from the Punjab. They searched the ship and the passengers for arms and seditious literature. The search did not yield anything and on 29 September the ship came to the industrial town of Budge Budge about 27 km from Calcutta.
 Sir Frederick Halliday, the commissioner of Police, Calcutta personally led a group of British and Indian officers and asked the passengers to disembark at once and proceed to the special train waiting at the nearby Budge Budge railway station to take them to Punjab. Gurdit, with whom they were negotiating, felt suspicious of the move and refused. Gurdit tried to reason with the officials saying that they had the sacred Guru Granth Sahib with them which they would install at the Gurdwara in Howrah and then would seek an interview with the Governor. The passengers refused to leave the ship without Gurdit.
 Eventually they came down with Gurdit carrying the Granth Sahib on his head. The passengers formed a procession, marched towards the station and sat down near the level crossing. A formal warning citing a new ordinance was read out by Donald and everyone was asked to board the special train.  Gurdit reiterated that he and the passengers needed to go to Calcutta for urgent work. It would be sacrilegious, he asserted, to take the sacred book in the train. The situation became increasingly confrontational and the British authorities appealed to Calcutta for troops. Between 3 and 4 p.m. the passengers stood up, crossed the level crossing and started marching towards Calcutta with the Granth Sahib being carried in front of them. The police followed them, while Halliday and Donald made phone calls to Calcutta for reinforcements. Eastwood, a superintendent of the Reserve police started from Calcutta around 4 pm with 30 European sergeants and constables. About 150 Royal Fusiliers were also dispatched to Budge Budge in cars. The procession was stopped about 6 or 7 km from Budge Budge by Eastwood and his forces till the Royal Fusiliers arrived. With them came the Chief Secretary of Bengal Cummins and Duke, claiming to represent the Governor. They asked Gurdit to go back to Budge Budge and continue their conversation. On their return the passengers, on being asked to go back to the ship for the night, refused and sat down near the railway station. The Punjab police stayed on the right side of the passengers and the Europeans were positioned on the other side.  The passengers gathered round the Sacred Book which was placed on a portable platform. Halliday walked towards the level crossing and suddenly a few shots were heard. Donald asked Gurdit to come up and talk to him, but Gurdit remained where he was. Eastwood plunged into the crowd and was allegedly knocked down to the ground by some Sikhs. At that moment the firing had begun. Halliday later said that he had seen 30 or 40 Sikhs firing but, as Johnston notes, the impression was not shared by some of his own officers. ‘Some of the shots came from the four police sergeants ,now engulfed by the crowd, and discharging their revolvers at such close quarters that one man, Badal Singh, was hit six times’. As the passengers now surged forward, the Calcutta and Punjab forces retaliated. The Royal Fusiliers entered the scene late, but the Commanding Officer, Capt. Moore secured Halliday’s permission to order fire. Most of the passengers now found shelter in a nearby ditch, or in the fields and some even jumped into the river. By 8 pm it was quiet again.[1]

Rohingyas: The Newest 'Boat People' of Asia

Sucharita Sengupta (sucharitaseng@gmail.com) works as a research assistant at Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group. 

While Europe is facing its worst migration crisis since the Balkan wars in the 90s, closer home in Asia, it is the Rohingyas of Myanmar who have been subjected to an even worse fate. Their protracted refugeehood both in Myanmar and Bangladesh, coupled with the fact that they are stateless has compelled them to take to the sea in precarious journeys. While it was Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body brought ashore in Turkey that shook the entire world to wake up to the magnitude of the ongoing migration crisis in Europe, it were the images of a ship full of migrants- the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis- in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, in May 2015, that shocked the entire world, revealing the migratory and livelihooid crisis of the Rohingyas.
In this short write up, I intend to examine the migration of the Rohingyas in high seas through an exploration of the term ‘boat people’. Following massive persecution in Myanmar, the Rohingyas have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, from the 1970s, to seek asylum. Since then, they have been living mostly in the Cox’s Bazaar area of Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts in two camps, whose residents are not allowed to interact with the local population. After a new government came to power in Bangladesh in January 2009, followed by fresh violence in Myanmar in 2012, it has adopted strict measures to stop the inflow. While this mixed and massive flow of population should forge connection between various actors across nation states, particularly between the migrants and the host communities, it is in fact instrumental to the loss of an identity and fundamentally disconnects and uproots a whole people from their nation.

Hill of Contentions: Guwahati's Story

Snehashish Mitra (biltu0717@gmail.com) works as a research assistant at Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group. 

Guwahati, in the state of Assam is the largest city of Northeast India, which provides gateway to other part of the region. In the last decade, the urbanization pattern of Guwahati has challenged the dominant notion of northeast India being a peripheral and marginal region. The city is growing in every possible direction, with real estate being the major engine. The possibility of opening up of trade with the other Southeast Asian countries has made Guwahati an attractive destination for investments. Along with capital, there is also an influx of labour, which in turn has led to a struggle over the environmental resources of Guwahati.  Guwahati is ecologically gifted as it is situated on the banks of river Brahmaputra and has 18 hills within the city limits. Despite so, Guwahati faces several environmental issues annually like that of artificial flood, landslide, human animal conflict etc. which takes toll on an average of 10 human lives per year.
The blame for such issues is mainly pelted on the hill settlements inhabited by migrants from different parts of Assam.  The high living cost in the plain areas inhabited by the gentrified class and lack of planning for the migrant population, has made the settlements on the hills inevitable. Such spaces in the urban sphere have become a bone of contention between the settlers and the state as some of the hills fall under the reserve forest category. Several grass root level organizations has come forward in support of the land ownership of the settlers.  In contrast with this scenario, realtors are developing the hills in other part of the city which are being offered at a high market price for the gentry. Intrusion of environmental spaces by human activities has led to frequent leopard attacks in the human inhabited areas. While the state authorities had taken up eviction initiative with marginal success, it certainly doesn’t offer a long term solution keeping in the mind the livelihood of poor migrants and the fragile environment of Guwahati. The resistance of the settlers on the hills perhaps emancipates from the fact that they have been forced to leave the rural hinterland of Assam or neighbouring states due to the redundancy of the traditional livelihood opportunities along with impacts of socio-environmental issues in the militarised frontier of northeast India. The mismanagement of natural resources like forests, water bodies by the state and adverse effects of climate change (erratic rainfall patters for example) have left occupations like dairy farming (mainly practiced, rather were practiced by the Nepali community) and fishing on rivers/ water bodies (mainstay of the scheduled caste communities, locally known as namasudras) redundant due to  decreasing yields. Natural calamities like annual floods displace a considerable number of people. Developmental projects like Lower Subansiri Dam have also displaced people from Mising community (Mising is an ethnic tribal community residing in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh).  Alongside such factors, northeast India has been a region intermittently in the grasp of militancy and conflict which has also caused major displacements and people have been spending considerable amount of time in refugee camps. Such factors or combination of them stems the need to migrate to a place which offers a comparatively peaceful atmosphere and provides with livelihood opportunities with somewhat assured remuneration. As Guwahati is by far the largest city of the region, it turns out to be the first choice of such rural to urban migration.

Urbanization: Constructing the city and lives of the people

Anish Bhandari (abhandari@soscbaha.org) works at the Centre for the Study of Labor and Mobility (CESLAM) at Social Science Baha, Kathmandu, Nepal.

Those who have probably known Kathmandu for a long time can see that it has changed its structure over the years like every other rapidly urbanizing city. The eighteenth SAARC summit hosted in Kathmandu and the government's road expansion project in recent years has transformed the gaze of the capital city of Nepal. One can see the construction workers with their helmets, jackets and tools working along the road sides everywhere in the city. It is also clearly visible that Kathmandu is slowly expanding to the peripheral hills which has difficult landscapes with forests and national parks. This expansion is due to the booming urbanization in the country and across the region. According to the 2011 Census Report, the urban population constitutes 17% (4,523,820) of the total population and Kathmandu alone accommodates a total of 1,744,240 people.
The fact that Kathmandu accommodates more people than its capacity in terms of the resources such as drinking water and electricity proves that the thriving urbanization is responsible for changing the structure of the capital city. The road expansion project and housing apartments building construction are the large scale constructions going on in Kathmandu. Also, the Melamchi Drinking Water pipes installation and solar lights installation along the city roads are speeding. The proposal of the government to construct the flyovers in Airport-Kalanki section and overhead bridge in New Baneshwor junction are also in the pipeline. However, these large scale construction projects are proposed without proper research and planning[i].Folks across the county come to Kathmandu not only because of their aspirations for better economic opportunities and access to basic services such as health and education but also because of the central administrative structure of the government that requires people to come to Kathmandu for multiple reasons such as visa procurement or final departure from the only international airport of the country. No wonder Kathmandu is one of the rapidly urbanizing cities in South Asia because it not only accommodates the permanent dwellers but transient migrants as well. Urban development, therefore, is an important indicator of change.

Gender, Displacement and Resistance in South Asia: The Case of Women Uprooted by River Erosion in West Bengal and Bangladesh

Sreya Sen - Doctoral Fellow, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies
University of Calcutta, India. This paper was presented at a workshop on Gender, Development, Resistance at the University of Lapland, Finland in June 2015. 

Recurrent river erosion on the banks of south western Bangladesh, such as in Khulna since early 2000. has led to massive displacement of the local population. Simultaneously, the slow but steady erosion of the Ganges River in the district of Malda in West Bengal, India has caused the people residing in these areas to lose their homes. This article draws upon archival sources of data, namely national and state government reports on policy and planning, district human development reports, reports generated by non-governmental organizations (local and International) working in the river erosion affected areas of Malda and Khulna and clippings from national and sub national dailies, to examine the impact of river erosion induced displacement on the lives of women residing here. It also attempts to see the ways in which these women have emerged as forces of resistance to the phenomenon of displacement instead of being mere victims of the process.

The problem of displacement caused by river erosion became extremely acute in the early years of the 21st century owing to the advent of development projects, prompting state authorities in both areas to take note of the severity of the problem. The construction of the Farakka Barrage in West Bengal for instance, has aggravated saline intrusion in both Khulna and Malda, leading to a rise in river erosion. The early part of the new millennium was also a time when International and domestic provisions for the protection of the IDP’s were widened in both India and Bangladesh in addition to the fundamental rights available for the protection of such persons in both countries. This was when Bangladesh became a signatory of the United Nations Convention of Human Rights (UNHCR) and thus bound to abide by their mandate. It became a member of the UNHCR in 2002, and consequently became bound to abide by its mandate as well as to take on board the Guiding Principles relating to IDP’s. In India, the National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy whose draft was prepared in 1998 by the then Ministry of Rural Development, became an official policy in 2007. Additionally, India being a member of the EXCOM of the UNHCR was also bound by its mandate to look into the well being of IDP’s in the country.