by Bhaskar Balakrishnan

The Tribune, 18 April 2010

IN many countries, human smuggling from India has led to various problems. Visa restrictions have been imposed so that Indians wishing to travel for genuine reasons such as tourism, business, or education, have suffered. India has been participating in international discussions such as the Bali process to curb human smuggling and trafficking, but its record in implementing effective measures is unsatisfactory.

The plight of those who succeed in getting into Western countries by illegal means is dismal. Agents and touts lure Indians from rural areas such as Punjab with false promises and induce them to pay huge sums of money. Europe and the US are destinations for such smugglers and illegal Indian migrants are found in the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, and other countries, trying to reach their El Dorado. Only very few succeed.

Human smuggling is distinct from the more cruel practice of human trafficking. The latter involves forced movement against the will of the humans involved, usually for purposes of prostitution, slavery, etc. In human smuggling, the humans willingly participate, lured by hopes of a better life away from their countries. Deception, fraud and exploitation can occur in both cases.

Human smuggling arises due to both “push” and “pull” factors. The “push” factor is the poor economic situation in the place of origin, lack of employment, low skill levels, etc. The “pull” factor is the shortage of manual, agricultural, and unskilled labour in the destination due to migration to cities and decreasing population, and the lower expenses the employer may have to meet, due to lower wages that the illegal migrants may receive.

In recent years, the agricultural sector in southern European countries such as Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain has been facing problems due to migration of working population to the cities in search of better prospects. There is thus a problem of finding agricultural labour for the farms, especially during harvest seasons. This demand has been met largely by migrant workers coming from the nearby Balkan countries, North Africa and increasingly from South Asia. An official survey in Greece, for example, indicated that there were some 70,000 unfilled jobs in the agricultural sector.

Interestingly, Greece already has some 15,000 migrants from Punjab, working in the agricultural sector. This number does not include those whose status is unregularised, probably another 3,000. The migrants from Punjab have been coming for over a decade, and in some areas such as Marathonas (some 30 km from the capital, Athens), they are numerous enough to become a visibly distinct community, with an impact on local politics (migrants can vote in Greek local elections). In Marathonas, one can see a number of small children from Punjab studying in local Greek schools and a number of festivals are observed regularly. By and large, the migrant workers from Punjab have acquired a good reputation as hardworking, honest workers, apart from occasional internal brawls and road accidents.

This writer has frequently asked local Prefects about the conduct of Punjabi migrants in their areas and invariably the response is that they create no problems whatsoever. The agro-climate in Greece has some similarities with Punjab and large farming and orchard areas require labour for tasks such as harvesting olives, etc.

These migrants live on the farms, and grow their own vegetables and are relatively better off, being able to save a considerable part of their earnings of around Euro 600 per month. Therefore, there is a strong “pull” factor that drives illegal migration to Greece. Similar conditions exist in Italy, Spain and Portugal.

The illegal migration is much larger from Pakistan (there are over 50,000 Pakistani-origin migrants in Greece). The Embassies of both India and Pakistan are often crowded with long lines of migrants seeking various documents especially duplicate passports. A large proportion of the Pakistani migrants find work in cities, especially in garages, and live under difficult conditions.

For many years, Greek authorities were relatively lenient in dealing with illegal migrants. Periodic amnesty schemes were announced to get themselves regularised. After Greece joined the Schengen area, border and immigration controls became much stricter. The situation became more difficult for illegal migrants.

The usual route for illegal migration to Greece is a circuitous one and may involve transit via places such as Bangkok, Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Istanbul, and then dropping of near at some point near Greece’s long coastline. Usually agents take away their passports. Most migrants are rounded up but deportation takes a long time. After three months in a detention centre, they have to be released and can work until their cases are finally decided. If they appeal, further time may elapse.

There could be an official agreement on migrant workers between the authorities in India and Greece (as in Egypt) under which workers from India could go to Greece to work in the agricultural sector. This would be a win-win situation for all. While Greece would benefit, Indian workers would get work and social security.

When this writer had suggested this approach to Greek officials, the response was that the agricultural work was seasonal and could be met by migrants from the neighbouring Balkan countries. However, the Greek farmers prefer migrant workers from Punjab on a full year basis, as this results in better operation of their farms. This is true especially in the large island of Crete, where agriculture goes on the year around, and it is located far from Greece’s Balkan neighbours.

The Centre and the states in India should strengthen legislative measures to detect and fight human smuggling and exploitation of migrants. The Emigration (Amendment) Bill, 2009, cleared by the Union Cabinet earlier, should be passed. However, specific measures to deal with human smuggling under cover of study, tourism, business, or culture, are needed. These measures need to be put in place with stronger penalties for offences.

The writer is a former Ambassador of India to Greece and Cuba