Plight of irregular migrantsIn South Asian countries, there is a huge gap between practice and policy when it comes to emigration laws
For both Nepal and India, emigration has been an old practice and an established phenomenon. The proportion of irregular migrants is considerable. The irregular flow, which is largely illegal in nature, has gained momentum and agencies that facilitate such flows have been mushrooming. Irregular migration leads to fraudulent travel documents, risky transportation routes, clandestine border crossings, transient accommodation and other harrowing steps.
Migrants follow complex routes to reach their destination and pay high fees to facilitate their migration to middlemen and recruiting agents. The most crucial source for financing their movement has been loans taken from various sources, mortgage and even sale of their properties. Some of them pay high interest rates. Brokers ask for a hefty sum on the grounds that the situation in the destinations countries is becoming tough and for promising a hassle-free transit and friendly entry.
A significant number of migrants secure jobs through friends, relatives or brokers, thereby indicating a pre-entry linkage in “transnational space”. In fact, this transnational social network instils confidence among the potential migrants.
Immigrants in Japan
Japan has now become an attractive destination for these irregular migrants. Most Japanese are not willing to do the ‘3k’ jobs—Kitanai [dirty], Kitsui [hard] and Kiken [dangerous]. This situation of a specific demand but limited supply from the national labour force triggers irregular migration.
However, in Japan, even if the job is secured through a friend, when the migrant actually goes and does the job, it is facilitated through a local nakagainin (intermediary-broker) who negotiates the wage between the job provider and the job seeker. It is never a face-to-face negotiation and settlement. Job seekers do not know what the wage negotiated between the employer and the broker is. The wage is paid by the broker and never directly by the employer. Brokers pocket between 20 to 40 percent of the wage as commission.
The practice of using brokers is due to various factors including cultural nationalism and abhorrence of trade unionism. Brokers also act as a legal shield to such illegal employment and wage payment. Brokers ensure that the employers of irregular migrants are shielded from the authorities’ eyes. Brokers are so well organised that without them some Japanese factories cannot run smoothly. Besides, they are part of ‘clientelism’ and facilitate informalisation and casualisation of low-paying employment
Many migrants who manage to secure jobs are usually deceived. The jobs they get are not only different from what they were promised but also far inferior to what they expected. They work in agriculture, construction, small-scale industry,
tourism, department stores, and households. But local workers receive much higher wages than migrant workers and are better protected through insurance and social security schemes.
Most irregular migrants send money through hundi operators, both because they are safe and time-tested for remitting money. Most hundi operators are Nepali or Indian nationals. Because of the high cost of illegality, susceptibility to discriminatory practices and steep penalty in the post-detection phase, most migrant workers live with fear. They change their jobs frequently, both to avoid being detected and to earn as much as possible in a short span of time.
Access to health care is very cumbersome, costly and at times highly risky because of the migrants’ irregular status. One of them very nervously said, “Pets in Japanese households get better and unquestioned access to health care than illegal migrants.” None have any link with the local trade unions and non-governmental organisations. Despite the difficult conditions, the aspirations of an overwhelming number of migrants to be self-reliant and to support their families are fulfilled in Japan.
There are widespread raids by governmental agencies, street round-ups and searches. However, places and dwellings where these migrants actually live are safe and never experience police raids. No one is asked for bribes by the police. In fact, one of them said, “Since we realise that the host country would not like us to do certain things which may threaten its security, we become actors in sensitising our own peer group to such restrictive activities. We do not violate any domestic laws once we enter Japan. We are in fact a source of security.” None of them are willing to take legal measure if they are caught by the authorities and they would like to return home quietly if they face deportation.
The most dangerous moment for the irregular migrants is while facing a police. A potent source of information for the police is the Japanese neighbours of the irregular migrants. To combat clandestine immigration, Japan, like other developed countries, employs propaganda. Public campaigns are used to give a criminal image to irregular migrants. Though there is scant scientific basis for the necessity to impose this image of “security threat” on these irregular migrants, they are usually put under the “criminal-security concerns basket”.
Many host countries do thrive on cultivated and self-imposed insecurity triggered by the irregular migrants. The migrants, therefore, become a source of crime and societal insecurity. This ‘latent prejudice’ is topped by deliberate exaggeration of such crimes in newspapers, TV channels and social media. This triggers strong anti-migrant sentiments among the general public. This cuts both ways, as it prevents any collective bargaining from the irregular migrants’ side and it deters the government to make any generous migrant-friendly laws. Discriminatory portrayals of migrants became rampant in the aftermath of 9/11.
Their illegal status makes irregular migrants susceptible to discriminatory practices. The employers take full advantage of this, and wilfully depress the wage rate and deprive irregular migrants of other social security measures like health funds. This also helps them recruit more of these cost-effective migrants. However, the risk of sanctions and punitive actions are quite high in case the illegal migrants are detected.
Both in India and Nepal, there is a huge gap between what is on paper and what is in practice when it comes to emigration laws. There is very poor coordination among concerned ministries including the ministry of labour and the ministry of foreign affairs. Most labour-sending countries in South Asia face similar problems. There has not been meaningful dialogue and effective international cooperation among these countries. The host countries’ clampdown measures are never matched by proactive measures at the place of origin. A country like Japan could actually extend more development assistance to the labour-sending countries, not just in terms of monetary aid but also soft skills. It can, for example, identify the pockets of irregular migrants, build their skills as per the demand in Japan and provide regular information about the employment patterns and opportunities there.
Lama is presently a high end expert in the Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University, China; this article is based on his research on South Asian Irregular Migrants in Japan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org