Twelve thousand illegal Bangladeshis living in the United States without valid papers have been issued marching orders. Many others might be evicted in the coming days without any problem. However, when India tried to evict its illegal immigrants it could not succeed. It faced stiff opposition both inside the country as well from outside. Not many immigrants were deported but severe damage was done to the bilateral Indo-Bangladesh relations. Nearly 20 million Bangladeshis are staying illegally in India. This infiltration has continued despite increased deployment of paramilitary forces on the highly porous Indo-Bangladesh border which is 4100 km long.
Bangladeshis have been immigrating illegally to several countries. No doubt, their first choice is a western country. The Gulf region comes next in priority. But going to these countries is not easy as they are far from Bangladesh. Only a small number manage to reach these shores. Most Bangladeshis who are unable to reach these attractive destinations spill over into India. What is worse, in the coming days the possibility of this economic migration is likely to increase as the population of Bangladesh is expected to double by 2050.
The continuous exodus of people from Bangladesh is changing the demography of the north-eastern states which is being resented by the local population. Illegal immigrants affect the Indian economy and pose a serious threat to internal security. Many of them indulge in criminal activities. In recent times several fundamentalist groups have emerged in the Indo-Bangladesh border districts who maintain links with the terrorists operating in India’s northeast. Over the years, Pakistan’s external intelligence agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) has gained a base in Bangladesh and is using subversive elements in this area against India.
Poverty-stricken Bangladeshis immigrate to India in search of better opportunities. At one time, favourable regimes in the bordering states made their job easy. They were also welcomed to get advantages in the electoral process. Moreover, it was difficult for India to guard its 4100 km border with Bangladesh, which is highly porous. The West which is also faced with similar problem has now managed to control this inflow by taking strict legal measures. The US administration has included Bangladesh in the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) after it was listed as terror-risk country. Now, Bangladeshis along with nationals of 24 other countries are to be photographed and fingerprinted while entering the United States. They will be asked to register their names with the US Immigration and Naturalisation Services (INS). As a result, the US has managed to identify 12000 illegal Bangladeshis.
Starting in January 2004, immigration officials will take digital fingerprints and photographs of most foreigners carrying student or tourist visas upon their arrival in the United States, as part of a new "Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology System" or VISIT. A better flow of information between immigration services, the FBI and the CIA, coordinated by the new Department of Homeland Security is expected to help government spot terrorists. Similar steps are being taken by the European Union states. Gulf countries are preventing even legal immigrants by indigenizing the local service sector. Strict legal regimes have discouraged potential illegal immigrants.
However, India has adopted a knee-jerk reaction to tackle this problem of migration which has not helped its cause. It has only succeeded in raising tensions on its north-eastern borders between the paramilitary forces of the two countries. The immigration goes on unchecked which have been noticed in several reports. There is a need for India to create a domestic political consensus against these immigrants so that a cohesive policy can be implemented. Immigrants who are already in India should be given work permits as they cannot be simply pushed out of the country overnight. The deportation of so many people is only possible in a peaceful environment. These efforts can be further supplemented by the fencing work, which is already in progress on the border and by strengthening legal regimes through specific new legislations and effective enforcement of existing laws.
We have ignored this problem for a long time. But when illegal immigrants became a major security threat and caused internal upheaval we woke up. We have no plan of action. Law enforcing agencies simply started pushing out immigrants wherever they could locate some. But this also alerted the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) who resisted this move. Not many immigrants were pushed back, but considerable tension was caused. Proper planning is required, and ham-handed methods will not work. If need be, the government should create a separate department to deal specifically with this problem.