Digital Cabinet

Polevaulter Donkeyman's rants, raves musings and flame wars

Former UNHCR Official to Economic Migrants: Screw You!

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Shashi Tharoor was, at one time, a staff member of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and he also headed the UNHCR office in Singapore from 1981 to 1984. Given his background one can assume that he has an intimate knowledge of why people become refugees. That makes his comments on migration for economic reasons even sadder.

The first question to ask is whose sovereignty is being threatened? Is the State’s? If so, then the next question to ask is how is the State’s sovereignty being threatened by “illegal” immigration? If the state is democratic, elected by means of a popular mandate, a case can be made that “illegal” immigrants can, by participating in the electoral process, vitiate it. The remedy in that case should not be a blunt instrument such as closing borders and deporting all who cannot satisfy the state of their nationality but by the more proportional remedy of correcting the electoral rolls.

If nothing else, this should be a good reason for the government to keep accurate and up-to-date electoral rolls.

But what if the state does not care that its citizen is destitute? How is it different from a state not caring for the life and liberty of its citizens?

I do confess that I do not see @Shashitharoor’s point here. It seems to be a distinction without a difference. In effect he seems to be saying. if a person is living in extreme poverty, dying of starvation, such a person is less worthy than a person who is being actively persecuted by his/her government. Why? In both cases the life of the person in question is intolerable. Who amongst us would rather die of starvation than die at the hands of the government? What is the logic in welcoming the latter and shunning the former?

One thing which I think needs clarification here: I am not calling for providing govt benefits or extending the welfare state to all comers. Nobody has enough resources in the world to do so. What I am calling for is for respecting the freedom of each human being to be allowed to exchange his/her labour and services with another willing participant in the marketplace

“The Navnirman Sena leader accused migrants of swamping Maharashtra, India’s most industrialised state, in search of jobs.”

“Vacancies in Maharashtra post offices should be filled by local people only. It will give justice to them and influx of outsiders can be controlled.”[1]

“For getting jobs in Mumbai, one has to be a Maharashtrian by birth.”[2]

Most “illegal” immigration restrictions play this “sovereignty” card when confronted with actors such as Raj Thackeray. They claim they are not the same as him. They bellow their belief in free movement within India, he doesn’t. But their rationales in restricting free movement across national borders is no different from Raj Thackeray: Natives will lose jobs. @Shashitharoor’s argument is no different (after all the main motivation for economic migrants is jobs)

How is the border of Maharashtra any different from the border of India? Both are artificial constructions of bureaucrats and politicians from up high.

I think of a national border as a means to constrain the power of the State, its writ reaching only to the extent of its borders and not beyond (which is why so many totalitarian countries had, and still have, exit); and not as a constraint on human beings.

A taxi driver from Uttar Pradesh accused the leader of trying to expel a community, “It is not possible to stop anyone from coming here. If I had a good job in my village in Uttar Pradesh why would I come here?”[3]

After a few days

Background Reading: Suu Kyi accused of silence on minority rights abuse

“Some activists said it was unclear if the Nobel peace laureate shared commonly held prejudices towards the dark-skinned minority from the subcontinent, who first migrated from Bengal centuries ago … When asked about the Rohingya issue, Ms Suu Kyi has vaguely referred to the need for the ‘rule of law’, or for a clear immigration law, which critics say suggests she sees the Rohingya as immigrants.”[4]

If even one generation in a country is enough to acquire some political rights then do the “illegal” bangladeshi immigrants in India also have the same quantum of political rights?

At this point another tweeter jumped in with a very pertinent observation:

As of now there has been no response from @shashitharoor to why he would treat Rohingyas in Burma differently from “illegal” bangladeshi immigrants in India.

To sum up, it is sad to see that a person who has so intimately worked with refugees can be so brusque and callous in his attitude towards a person who is only trying to make a better life for him(her)self and his(her) family. It is noble to provide refuge to people fleeing from a murderous state, a state which thinks nothing of raping, torturing and killing its citizens. But why is it any less noble to allow[5] in people fleeing from a life of destitution and misery, where the state couldn’t care less if its citizens could get a square meal a day, where the state couldn’t care less if its citizens are able to work and provide for themselves and their families?

One reason for @shashitharoor’s reluctance to embrace economic immigrants could be because of his new role as a politician. Unfortunately like everywhere else in the world, many Indians are xenophobic: they see foreigners coming into the country and slowly taking over their (god given right to) jobs, lands, resources. There is a fear that foreigners will also make electoral gains.[6] Given this antipathy to foreigners it is extremely risky for any politician to stand up for the free market, the free movement of labour. And @shashitharoor has a history of being caught up in scandals and controversies. Maybe this is just a way for him to tweet some platitudes, playing into the prejudices of his constituents and other Indians. After all, given the uproar some of his previous tweets have caused, a tweet supporting the right of movement of labour would lead to a firestorm of controversy, something he does not need right now.

But even then, it is disheartening to see a former UNHCR official so unfeeling towards those who only want a better life for themselves and their family.


[1] Give priority to locals in post office jobs: Raj Thackeray

[2] Give jobs only to those born in Maha: Raj Thackeray

[3] Right-wing Mumbai leader arrested

[4] Suu Kyi accused of silence on minority rights abuse

[5] N.B. Not help; I don’t think it is a state’s place to take any affirmative action to help immigrants.

[6] As I said above, giving “illegal” immigrants electoral access would vitiate the electoral process. There is another reason to not grant immigrants the right to vote. Given that they had knowledge that they would not have the vote in their destination country, they made a conscious decision to give up the right to vote in lieu of exercising their right to exit. Why give them something they don’t prize?

Written by Polevaulter Donkeyman

August 1, 2012 at 03:59

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