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Unseen 2019: The rise of the Indian asylum seekers

  • Even as the NRC and CAA bring the idea of citizenship to the front, the number of Indians claiming asylum abroad has seen a 996% rise in the past 10 years
  • Most Indian asylum seekers migrate due to unemployment and poor economic prospects

As immigration laws across the world become tighter, the ways for Indians wanting to emigrate legally have shrunk.
As immigration laws across the world become tighter, the ways for Indians wanting to emigrate legally have shrunk. (Photo: Getty Images)

At 28, Sanjeev Kumar had a master’s degree in physical education and no job. “Even if I did, I would have got a salary only up to 20,000," he says. “How do you support a family in that?"

Last year, he says, he heard of a “travel agent" in his home-town Panipat, Haryana, who could help him get a job abroad. First, he would have to fly to Ecuador, then walk and ride into Central America and Mexico, and finally, sneak into the US. Once there, he would get a job at a gas station or a grocery store and earn up to 3 lakh a month. Soon, the agent would secure him an American citizenship and he could fly down his family too. All for 25 lakh.

Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

It sounded risky. What if he was caught by the border police? Then, the agent said, you request asylum. Say you were attacked by members of the ruling party, and that the police too had refused to protect you. As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the US wouldn’t be able to deport him without giving him a fair hearing.

An “asylum seeker", as defined by the convention, is anyone persecuted on grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 3.5 million asylum seekers among a record 70.8 million displaced people worldwide in 2018. While most came from war-torn regions of Africa and parts of South America, India too saw a whopping rise over 10 years: from 4,722 in 2008 to 51,769 in 2018.

“My father was against it," recalls Kumar over the phone from Panipat. “He said, ‘Maine duniya dekhi hai. The agent will rip you off.’ But I had my wife and kids to think of."

Over the next few months, Kumar borrowed from family, friends, relatives and a local moneylender to buy himself a one-way trip to the US. But within days of commencing his travel from Ecuador, he was robbed at gunpoint, had his passport stolen, was briefly kidnapped and forced to trek through snake-infested forests. A one-and-a-half week road trip to the US turned into a three-month ordeal. At the Mexico-California border, officials from the US immigration and customs department (ICE) detained him for entering illegally.

“I told them what the agent had told me," says Kumar. Five months into detention, his application was rejected. On 20 November, he was deported from the US with nearly 140 others from India. By now, he had realized where he had gone wrong: “Ninety-five per cent of Indians detained had a cover story similar to mine. But most of them were like me: forced to go because they couldn’t find a job in India."

Poor or persecuted?

Any study on asylum seekers is steeped in debates on the extent and authenticity of the “persecution" claimed. To many, the dramatic increase in the number of asylum seekers from India sounds suspicious. After all, they say, hasn’t India hosted over two million refugees, mainly those fleeing Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Tibet?

“It’s not possible to estimate with any degree of accuracy the share of legitimate versus meritless cases," says Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communication and public affairs at the US-based Migration Policy Institute. “Undoubtedly, there are cases where individuals take advantage of asylum systems to advance personal migration goals they can’t achieve by other means. But in an era of record humanitarian displacement around the globe, it is also important to recognize that there are countless numbers of people who have real, pressing, legitimate protection needs."

During the Khalistani separatist movement in the 1980s, thousands of Sikhs are said to have fled India and claimed asylum in the US and Canada. India has had a series of internal conflicts: the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, the Gujarat riots of 2002 and the three-decade insurgency in Kashmir since the 1990s, to name a few. In recent years, says a 2018 report by the international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Pro-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) vigilantes have committed several acts of violence against religious minorities, marginalized communities and critics of the government."

Some of those who fled India to claim asylum have been documented in the international media: a Christian family fleeing Kerala after being attacked by Hindu fundamentalists, one Buta Singh entering the US via the Mexican border to escape police harassment in his home state Punjab, one Ajay Kumar from Haryana with a story of persecution by members of the BJP.

“However, in terms of electoral democracy, India still functions," says Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of HRW. “It’s possible that some powerful guy beats up a member of an opposition party. But if it is localized personal enmity, people tend to go to other areas in India. They don’t cross seas or snake-infested forests to get to the Mexican border." This, she adds, points to a larger systemic problem: people risking their lives to go abroad, driven by the poor state of the Indian economy.

In recent years, inflation has been on the rise, the economy has been experiencing a slowdown for several quarters and unemployment rates have touched a 45-year high. The recently approved Citizenship (Amendment) Act, fast-tracking citizenship for specified minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh living in India, has sparked nationwide protests.

“Many people think they can have much better lives abroad," says Ganguly. But as immigration laws across the world become tighter, the ways for Indians wanting to emigrate legally have shrunk.

According to the UNHCR database, the US, Canada, UK, Australia and South Korea—developed countries, most of them with a sizeable Indian diaspora—are the preferred destinations for Indian asylum seekers.

During the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, say experts, human traffickers across the world directed illegal migrants to European countries like Germany, which had temporarily opened its borders.

Indian asylum applicants to Europe, too, showed a sudden uptick during this period. In Germany, the number went up from 1,834 in 2015 to 3,502 in 2016. In Cyprus, the nearest European landing port for Syrian refugees, it jumped from 90 in 2015 to 202 in 2016.

“It’s a combination of desperation and fascination with the West," says Ravi Hemadri from the New-Delhi based Development and Justice Initiative, who has studied Indian immigration in the UK. “Most of the asylum seekers are young men between 20 and 30, from parts of Punjab and Haryana and, to a lesser extent, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. Whenever I have spoken to them, they say, ‘India mein kya rakha hai (What is there in India)?’ Many want to start a business but can’t work around the corruption."

The Union government does not believe there is a problem. On being requested for an interview, the ministry of external affairs (MEA), in an email, directed Lounge to the home ministry, which did not respond. But in its written replies to questions raised in Parliament, the MEA has maintained, “Government of India believes that asylum-seekers, while applying for asylum to a foreign government, denigrate the system in India to obtain personal gains, despite the fact that India, being a democratic country, provides avenues for everyone to redress their grievances lawfully."

Hostility and inhospitalITY

Even if a section of people seek asylum for “personal gains", hundreds seem to be able to demonstrate hostile living conditions in India—if the numbers of successful asylum applications are anything to go by. While the UNHCR doesn’t keep yearly records of approved asylum applications, a review by the US department of homeland security says over 1,600 of 17,000 Indians secured asylum between 2015-17 in the US. That’s nearly 10% of all Indian applicants.

One such successful asylum seeker is Narengbam Samarjit, owner of Manipur-based SALAI HOLDINGS Pvt. Ltd., a conglomerate with interests across trade, farming, real estate and pharmaceutical sectors. In 2015, Samarjit ventured into politics and formed the North East India Development Party (NEIDP). Ahead of the 2019 parliamentary election, he turned into a vocal critic of India, claiming that the Union government was violating the special powers granted to Manipur by exercising undue influence in his home state. Although it boosted his public image, none of the candidates NEIDP fielded during the election won.

In June, Samarjit flew out of India on a “business trip". He surfaced in London in October and declared that he had secured asylum in the UK. Addressing a press conference, Samarjit claimed he was setting up a Manipur “government-in-exile" and would work to secure the constitutional rights of his home state.

The Union government moved swiftly. His bank accounts were frozen, a case of “waging war against the state" was registered against him, and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over the case within days. Both NEIDP and SALAI HOLDINGS removed him from the post of president.

In a phone interview from the UK, Samarjit claimed he had received several threats on the phone and in writing after he started criticizing the Indian government earlier this year. “The NIA had also started harassing me. They said that armed separatist groups were funding my campaign. In fact, I had filed police complaints because those groups had demanded money off me. I had also requested security guards but the government said they didn’t have enough personnel. I was afraid of being assassinated," says Samarjit. Meghachandra Singh, superintendent of police in West Imphal, denied his claims.

Genuine or not, applying for asylum has become increasingly difficult in recent years. Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election by lobbying for the creation of “a great wall" on the Mexican border to keep out immigrants. A 2018 budget review by the European Union announced a budget of €34.9 billion (around 279,000 crore now) for border management and deployment of an additional 10,000 personnel around European borders. Amnesty International has described Australia’s policy towards migrants and asylum seekers as a “calculated system of neglect and cruelty". Dozens have died while trying to sneak into the UK hiding in the freezer compartments of lorries, in an effort to avoid British border guards.

Even if one applies for asylum, officials at detention centres have been known to violate human rights. Earlier this year, a desperate Ajay Kumar (mentioned earlier) is reported to have gone on a hunger strike with three others at the El Paso detainee processing centre in the US, protesting against conditions at the facility.

While hunger strikes are a common form of protest among detainees in the US, this case received international attention after a visiting doctor at the facility filed an affidavit saying Ajay Kumar was receiving the “worst medical care I have seen in my 10 years of practice". In October, he was released on bail. The fate of his application is not known.

There are already fears that the proposed National Register of Citizens could see an increase in the number of asylum seekers. “It’s what happened to the Rohingya in Myanmar," says Hemadri.

Today, Sanjeev Kumar is back in Panipat, still unemployed, hoping to get his money back from the travel agent. Will he try to go to the US again, I ask him over the phone. “Not even if you pay me to," he says. Does it bother him that he was deported? “Dukh ye nahi hai ki wahan se bhej diya. Dukh ye hai ki apne desh ki beizzati karwa di (That I was deported doesn’t sadden me. What does is that I brought my country into disrepute)."

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