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Opinion

China and India must address causes of migration to stop human traffic

Larger Asian countries are closing their borders, just like West and Gulf states

People wait to check if their names are included in the National Register of Citizens at a draft center in Mayoung, India, pictured in July 2018: migration from Bangladesh has become politically explosive in India.   © AP

For 11 days in late October, 104 migrants were stranded in the Mediterranean Sea aboard the rescue ship Ocean Viking before Italy gave permission for it to dock. This is not an isolated incident as countries in Europe do their best to deter growing numbers of migrants from Asia and Africa from reaching their borders.

Even in the U.S. -- a country of migrants -- President Donald Trump has made immigration the centerpiece of his politics. He has highlighted and condemned migration from Central American countries, but that from Asia is much higher: since 2010, more Asians have migrated to the U.S. than Latin Americans.

Push and pull factors drive this migration. The globalized economy is encouraging a large number of Asians to migrate, while wars, civil wars and climate change discourage remaining at home.

However, the rise of populism and nationalism in destination countries has not only led these countries to take restrictive measures against accepting migrants, but it has also prompted governments to abandon the rules and norms of multilateralism -- just when the world needs a coherent migration prevention and response strategy the most.

It is not only the West pushing back on migration. Since the oil boom of the 1970s, most Gulf countries have been importing cheaper, well-trained labor mainly from South and Southeast Asia. But as they now struggle with declining oil revenue, high unemployment among nationals and the lingering threat of domestic unrest, they have started to restrict the number of foreign workers.

Some have clamped down on migration inflows and deported illegal workers mainly to countries in Asia, while others positively discriminate to increase the native-born share of their workforces.

Because of the closed-door policies of a large number of developed Western countries and oil-rich Gulf countries, population migration has increased substantially between developing countries.

A densely populated country like Bangladesh has almost been forced -- thanks to neighboring countries' reluctance -- to accept a million Rohingya migrants fleeting ethnic persecution in Myanmar in recent years.

Meanwhile, migration from Bangladesh has become politically explosive in India: nearly 1.9 million residents in the Indian state of Assam have been identified as possible illegal migrants from Bangladesh under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's tough nationalist policies.

India is planning to conduct this citizenship identification exercise in the rest of the country, and has started building detention centers for the illegal migrants, potentially before deporting them.

Large countries in Asia have been quite restrictive in accepting migrants. China, the world's second largest economy and its most populous nation, is not even among the top 20 countries by largest number of international migrants accepted.

In 1990, India used to be the third-highest recipient of international migrants, but by 2019 its position had gone down to 13th. Similarly, Pakistan has moved from fifth to 20th position in the same period. Though Asians are migrating more, only smaller countries like Thailand and Malaysia have increased their migration intake.

Migrant workers from neighbouring Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia work at a food manufacturing factory in Bangkok: smaller countries like Thailand have increased their migration intake.   © NurPhoto/Getty Images

Migration is closely connected to several of the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals, and particularly number 16, which promotes just, peaceful and inclusive societies. Large-scale population migration from and within Asia has already posed serious challenges to peace, security and bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

Some Asian countries are restricting legal entry to their territory; some are constructing barbed wire fences on their borders; some are using naval forces to resist the inflow of migrants.

Unfortunately, the increasing politics of nativism in most of the countries receiving Asian migrants goes hand in hand with the global trend of the decline of democracy. In a less democratic world, with fewer inclusive institutions, Asian migrants are more likely to be used as political pawns by nationalist forces, leading to more conflict and injustice.

In a globalized world, it is almost impossible for Asian countries to isolate themselves. They must adopt multifaceted, integrated and comprehensive approaches toward migration.

We need a positive approach to squarely face this monumental task. Cohesive international and regional responses must prevent the violent conflicts and increasing number of civil wars which drive migration by setting up early warnings and effective responses.

The growing numbers of economic and climate migrants can be sustainably addressed only by setting up a comprehensive global and regional agenda to achieve human security in Asian nations which are net exporters of migrants.

They need to focus their attention on preventing the causes of forced displacement rather than using force to stop the arrival of people who are escaping violence, persecution, poverty or climate change.

Ashok Swain is Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden.

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