The Indian Dream

The sorry episode at Vatry airport, in the eastern Marne region of France, where a flight from Dubai to Nicaragua, carrying 303 Indian passengers was grounded by French authorities for five days, on suspicion of illegal immigration, put the entire country to shame.

The Indian Dream

Representation image

The sorry episode at Vatry airport, in the eastern Marne region of France, where a flight from Dubai to Nicaragua, carrying 303 Indian passengers was grounded by French authorities for five days, on suspicion of illegal immigration, put the entire country to shame. The aircraft was eventually sent back to Mumbai. However, twenty-five passengers, including five minors, stayed back in France, where they applied for asylum.

On questioning by Indian police, it was revealed that the passengers were planning to travel to Mexico via Nicaragua, before crossing the border illegally into the United States. Reportedly, they had paid smugglers sums ranging from Rs.40 lakh to Rs 1.20 crore. This is not an isolated instance; variations on this theme have played out a number of times; in the last two years, at least nine Indians have died while attempting to cross into the US from Canada or Mexico.

The desperation to reach the US is heartrending; in January 2022, a family of four was found frozen to death in a blizzard on the US-Canada border. Later in the year, another person died while attempting to scale the Mexico-US border wall. A family of four died when their boat capsized at the US-Canada border. Also, numerous instances were reported, where aspiring illegal immigrants were cheated out of their life-savings by immoral travel agents. According to ‘International Migration 2020 Highlights,’ published by the Population Division of UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, India had the largest diaspora population in the world, with 17.9 million Indians living in diverse countries across the globe ~ but regrettably, a sizeable segment of the Indian diaspora had migrated illegally. According to a Pew Research Centre estimate, the US had about 725,000 Indian illegal immigrants ~ 96,917 Indians were arrested while attempting to enter the US illegally during the period October 2022 to September 2023.


Similarly, around 1 lakh Indians were found to be staying illegally in the UK, with the number of illegal entrants spiking in recent months. Questioning of detained illegal immigrants has revealed that organised immigration rackets were responsible for the recent flux in illegal immigration. Recently, answering a question on illegal immigration, the Minister of State for External Affairs pleaded inability to quantify the number of illegal migrants from India. The Minister, however, disclosed that as on 30 October 2023, 2,925 illegal agents had been identified and their names were put up on the e-Migrate portal.

Yet, till date, no significant action had been taken against these human traffickers, probably because illegal migration is a money-spinning business ~ both for operators and authorities. Legal migration is also rising apace ~ more than 17.5 lakh Indians have given up their citizenship since 2011 with 2.25 lakhs giving up their Indian citizenship in 2022 alone. A study of migration patterns reveals that the preferred method of migration of well-qualified youngsters was to enter the country of their choice on a student visa, acquire relevant qualifications and stay on in well-paying white-collar jobs.

This timeless migration route has seen the cream of Indian youth leave India for greener pastures; earlier it was called ‘brain drain’ but has been renamed by PM Modi as a ‘brain gain’ ~ a bank of loyal talent, accessible on demand. Many of the earlier studentimmigrants left India because research and entrepreneurial opportunities were limited at that time; however, it is a different ball game now, with most youngsters migrating to the West in search of a better life.

Earlier, a major segment of immigrant Indians was that of people displaced internally by partition, who saw Europe as a safe haven. Also, a large number of Indianorigin British citizens are those who had been sent to British colonies during British rule, but were expelled when those colonies achieved independence; Rishi Sunak and some of his cabinet colleagues fall in this category. Recently, a worrying trend of high-net-worth individuals (HNIs) migrating from India has been noticed.

According, to the Henley Private Wealth Migration Report 2023, based on global trends in wealth and investment migration, 6,500 HNIs relocated from India in 2023. Also, most illegal immigrants, hailing from the prosperous western states of Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana, are not poor by any standard ~ many pay a bomb to dubious human traffickers. Thus, both intellect and capital are hot footing it from India, at an alarming rate. On the other hand, Indian migrants make a significant contribution to the Indian economy; according to the World Bank’s latest Migration and Development Brief, Indian migrants remitted a sum of US$125 billion to India in 2023.

Recognising the contribution of the Indian diaspora, the Government has rolled out various benefits for Indian-origin migrants; most significantly, they are called ‘Pravasi Bhartiyas’ and can avail of Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) status, which is just short of actual citizenship. The question arises: Why are so many Indians jumping ship when the Indian economy is doing well, and a fairly elected democratic government is in saddle? There is no easy answer; both ‘push factors’ that force people to migrate e.g., ‘lack of jobs’, ‘low wages’, ‘poor financial condition’, ‘debt on the family’, ‘social insecurity’, and ‘social discrimination’ and pull factors such as ‘better employment opportunities’, ‘improved living standard’, ‘personal development’, ‘presence of relatives’ and ‘attractive environment,’ appear to be at play. Earlier cross-border migration was the last option because of social taboos and a fear of the unknown but with loosening of societal control, faster modes of transport, almost universal internet and TV penetration, no one thinks twice about going abroad.

The current exodus from India confounds migration theorists because the Indian economy is booming, and if Niti Aayog is to be believed, multidimensional poverty has declined rapidly from 29.17 per cent in 2013- 14 to 11.28 per cent in 2022-23, and about 24.82 crore people have moved above the poverty line. With Western economies not doing so well, logically, the allure of the West should be much less. Also, a major chunk of illegal immigrants, who may have been gainfully employed in India, almost always land up in sweat shops ~ where they are shamelessly exploited.

An unconventional explanation for the increased outward emigration, despite these negative factors, could be that a critical point has been reached, when almost everyone is aware of global opportunities and has the wherewithal to pursue them, and at the same time is fearful of the intense competition in India. Concomitantly, Western countries, with falling populations, are facing a severe manpower and talent crunch, providing a ready market for immigrants, including illegal ones. Thirdly, the narrative of widespread, well-distributed prosperity is open to serious doubt; currently, two-third of our population is dependent on heavily subsidised rations, and all studies, except by government economists, point to a K-shaped economic recovery after the Covid19 pandemic. According to Oxfam, during pandemic times, the number of Indian billionaires grew from 102 to 142 (which are 169 at the latest count) and their wealth increased from Rs.23 lakh crore to Rs.53 lakh crore.

At the same time 84 per cent households suffered a decline in their incomes, with 4.6 crore persons falling into abject poverty. Earlier, too, the “World Inequality Report 2022,” and the homegrown PRICE Survey had reached a similar conclusion i.e., the emergence of an unacceptable degree of poverty and inequality in India. Today, the entire world views migration as a problem and most countries operate strict border controls, losing sight of the fact that great countries like the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, were all founded by immigrants.

Also, few can understand the agony of the migrant who enriches his adopted land, but still pines for his homeland. As Salman Rushdie, himself a migrant, has written: “… mingling with the remains of the plane, equally fragmented, equally absurd, there floated the debris of the soul, broken memories, sloughed-off selves, severed mother tongues, violated privacies, untranslatable jokes, extinguished futures, lost loves, the forgotten meaning of hollow, booming words, land, belonging, home” (The Satanic Verses).

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)