The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs recently said 3.2 million Bangladeshi migrants had settled in India. India, it noted in its report on international migration, has the “single largest bilateral stock of international migrants in the developing world.”

This number won’t be taken too seriously in India as it does not really take into account the bulk of illegal migrants. The S.K. Sinha report, which is commonly cited, came up with about 5 million Bangladeshi migrants each in Assam and West Bengal alone. It came up with about 15-16 million migrants in all.

While India and Bangladesh look set to miss signing a land border agreement in the last few months of the Manmohan Singh government, it seems likely it will be concluded at some point in the coming year or two. At this point, with a border that at least no longer looks like Swiss cheese, the issue of migration should be taken up at some point.

It costs a Bangladeshi about Rs 1000 to 1500 to get someone to get him across the Indian border, with a good bit of that money probably going to the Indian Border Security Force. Nothing will change the fact it costs a pittance to get across the border. And for the foreseeable future, the pull factors on the Indian side of jobs, a slightly higher income and so on will also remain. Combine this with the fact that, unlike the US-Mexican border, the people on both sides of the Indo-Bangladesh border are identical in appearance, language, culture and are both often bereft of any major identity documents.

This is, for all practical purposes, a nearly open border.
The issue therefore is not to attempt to stop migration. That simply cannot be done and everything that has happened since 1971 — or even 1947 — can stop this.

What should really be done is the introduction of a temporary work visa for Bangladeshis. In other words, a legal channel that would regularise the illegal traffic. What would be the benefits?

1. Migrants would be socialised into coming to working in India and then returning. Contrary to popular belief, a fairly large number of migrants go back and forth along the Indo-Bangladesh border. It is a joke in the home ministry that Bangladeshis who wanted to go back would surrender to the Indian police, be carted back home at New Delhi’s expense and then return, via a smuggler, after their business at home had been done. More than a few Bangladeshi migrants end up staying in India longer or forever because they find it difficult to go home given their illegal status.

2. If such a visa is linked to an Indian employer, it would make it easier for India’s police or security forces to track down legal workers who go AWOL. And there would, no doubt, be quite a few. But if an easy enough path is created for them to go back and forth legally, the incentive to become a fugitive would that much lower. If the Indian employer faces fines or other punishment if the Bangladeshi disappears into the wild green yonder, there would be an additional set of eyes on the migrant.

3. A legal channel would help de-criminalise the border. People trafficking has a whole host of complementary sins from prostitutions, organised crime and a corrupting influence on security forces that could be eliminated or at least diluted.

This would not necessarily stop illegal migration. But it would divert a large number of the Bangladeshis who cross into a legal channel. That would be a start.

The normal political way to sell this is to combine a tougher policy against illegals with a sunny open door for the legal migrants. The Northeast, which is especially sensitive about Bangladeshis of any hue and colour, might find the idea of legal migration more palatable if it is merged with sustained drives against illegal migrants.

Ultimately, what will stop migration are the economic fortunes of Bangladesh. Dhaka has been a remarkable economic and social success the past decade. But it still remains poorer per capita than India even if its human development index is better. However, thanks to India’s free trade agreement, Bangladesh now exports some billion dollars’ worth of textiles and other things to India, creating both wealth and a pro-India business group inside both major political parties in Bangladesh. One can see this in Mexico, with the US economy tanking and the Mexican economy looking pretty good, there has been net migration of Mexicans out of the US.

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