‘A long road with no turning back’- One Day International Teachers’ Workshop on Forced Migration: Humanity at the Crossroads

The departments of History and Political Science, Sivanath Shastri College (SSC), in collaboration with the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group (MCRG) conducted a One-Day International Teachers’ workshop titled Forced Migration: Humanity at the Crossroads on the 9th of July, 2020. Arna Dirghani reports.

The first session included Professor of South East Asian Studies, University of Calcutta (CRG member) Professor Paula Banerjee, Professor of Political Science and Director, Institute of Foreign Policy Studies, University of Calcutta (Honorary Director, CRG) Professor Samir Kumar Das, Professor Samita Sen, Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, Trinity College, University of Cambridge, UK (CRG member)  and Dr. Xonzoi Barbora, Chairperson of the Centre of Peace and Conflict Studies, School of Social Sciences and Humanities, Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities.

The welcome address by the Principal of SSC, Dr. Runa Biswas highlighted the need to display the violation of rights of migrants to responsible higher authorities. Dr. Shyamalendu Mazumdar, Associate Professor of the Department of Political Science, SSC, stressed on educators needing to be aware of the present condition for further research. In her keynote, Professor Paula Banerjee began with news articles that revealed the utter anxiety of panicked migrants near Indian border towns. Millions left to deal with desperation in four hours’ notice had to make traumatic life changing decisions. “Suddenly we have within us not just fear but a blatant scene of abject human neglect and a story of tremendous crisis and fight to live on”, she said. Countries initially fighting “the disease of the poor”, HIV, since 1983 realized COVID-19 affects the rich, which was a modification in the regular. The aim of trying to deal with the pandemic has been changing the geography to stop the virus spread; accomplished by locking the ones regarded as “problematic carriers”, the Indian migrants. The “great leveler” turned to be a prejudiced disease affecting both the prosperous and the deprived, but slaughtering only the poor. Most of the “essential” women workers affected in the United States, majorly African-Americans, Latinos or Asian; were refused safe jobs and forced to take perilous journeys. This was not a “first” return for any migrant; but the “return of the returning migrant” in the metropolitan cities, who were calling them back for work with small expenses.

Professor Samir Kumar Das’s presentation was titled “In Search of the Displaced: Pandemic and the Possibilities of Knowledge.” He focused on figuring out who the “displaced” are, that their category is heterogeneous and stratified, and demonstrate how it is an “impossible figure” because the existing knowledge was not sufficient to understand the variant categories. He spoke on the institution of manual scavenging in depth. He reported that many of them were Bangladeshi non–Hindu immigrants, not of the traditional occupational caste of the manual scavenger; slipping the borders and settled in town due to desperate economic conditions, mostly keeping their occupation secret to their family. It presented a class of people from whom life and law did not correspond; these people suffered from three visible illegalities, their very stay as migrants was illegal, they confided of having criminal records back home and they were connected with a profession rendered illegal by the Indian law. The Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013 seeks to punish the employers of the scavengers and render the practice illegal, but a survey conducted on eighteen Indian states (January 2020) estimated the existing numbers at 28,000 with a 61% rise of deaths in 2019. The Police claim that the Indian Act does not apply to them as they are not Indian citizens and do not take actions to stop the practice since it is in demand in the old settlements which lack proper sanitation facilities. But “when everybody else was breaking the law, the law enforcers took upon themselves the duty of enforcing law on those who themselves are not legal, the idea is not so much to enforce law as much as to render them invisible,” said Prof. Das. He revealed the binary concerning research and being ethical and that the virus presented a methodological challenge of field visits if the entire work is prohibited. He went on to say the illegal is functional and helps in reproducing the normal because manual scavenging exists and life becomes normal for others and sanitary conditions preserved. Hence the law enforcers see to it that they should not be seen and brought into the ambit of law. He quoted from “The Normal and the Pathological” that “the pathological is not opposed to the normal” but is the quantitative variation of the normal, for the normal itself is but “the ability to devise new laws and bend/break the existing ones.” Hence it is at that moment of disease the divide between the normal and the pathological is widest and fear from the pathological, the highest. Prof. Das professed three responses to the reconstitutions of the changed template of research; Anxiety, modes of disinfection (by territorialising the pathological and keeping the normal away) and that the displaced are spearheads inaugurating the “new normal” by exposing their bodies to disease. Showing how even “theft”, for example, of sanitizers in the Dharavi public washrooms was ultimately a positive way of sanitation., Prof. Das concluded his presentation.

Representative image of manual scavenging. Source: News Laundry.

Professor Samita Sen’s presentation was titled “Reverse Migration Query? Circulation, Domesticity and a New Virus.”  She revealed “a moment of a paradox in a strategy of survival premised on one hand on self-isolation as opposed to a very sharp lesson in interdependence.” Since the lockdown is a forced immobility with purpose to render people immobile; in a paradoxical effect of the sudden immobility the migrant in the process of mobility emerged in public gaze. Visibility was attracted mainly by the degree of desperation and the scale of physical mobility. Prof. Sen argued that reverse migration was caused by the inhospitality of the city and it entailed a loss of trust on the part of workers very difficult to fix. Her prediction however demanded this to be a part of a process of circulation between the village and cities for centuries in a particular kind of livelihood strategy which has developed as part of Indian capitalism. The Interstate Migration Act of 1979 seeks to regulate migration through registration and control over the terms and conditions of employment, but this law has been followed more in its breach. A very important aspect of migration remains domestic workers among the top categories of migrant workers at 30-50 million. If migrants present a mobility paradox then the lockdown presents to us a space paradox. There have been long term secular processes of the gradual transition of our lives from domestic to public and the lockdown is a way of halting even reversal of the process which grabs attention to “new” normal. The location of this worker in the “domestic” has changed the status of “worker” in the industrial capitalist world; the figure is an invisible paradox. Prof. Sen touched on the class relationship within women: the housewife employing the woman worker entailing an employer-employee relationship. Secondly, house work sharing with focus on gender and generation shares amongst housework. Withdrawal of the domestic worker presented a clear interface not only due to spatial immobility inside city but also the fact that they are migrants under reverse migration. Labour market consequences included live-in workers stuck in their workplace and part time jobs lost. The creation of the domestic as the bulwark against virus and any person entering it deemed foreigner threatened the intimacy the worker partook in; hence race, caste and stigmatisation was endorsed by the new virus. Prof. Sen concluded her lecture with hope of possibilities of change in the discussed area.

A file photo of domestic workers asking for their rights in New Delhi. Courtesy, UCA News

Dr. Xonzoi Barbora spoke on similarities between how the government deals with pandemics and its counter insurgency measures. Where politics, scholarship and research have been based on the idea of “coming in”, the lockdown presented people who had left and were coming back. Dr. Barbora talked of three prominent works on out migration from the North East; works of Kikon and Karlsson and Duncan Mg-Duie Ra cite several examples on why people on whose behalf there have been struggles of autonomous territory, leave. The third work by Seth Holmes alert us to the condition of “illegal” migrant workers in California. These lay out four important factors of the pandemic effects; labour, the context that pushes people away from their homes and brings them back in, how capitalism and neoliberalism strip away the basic dignity of a worker and a strange coming together the plight of citizen and worker, in light of counter insurgencies; to live in a compact world. Dr. Barbora focused on three North Eastern ideals: Idea of Community, Governance and Economy and Labour. With a heightened sense of scare and care in the idea of community; the pandemic has been an eye opener because the institutions the government should nurture were hollowed out with individuals coming in to guide citizens. Ideas of North Eastern revolutions that resulted in several decades of militarization have been brought back in the lockdown. With “vocal for local” and indigenous cooperatives being muscled out in the name of “citizenship” it is imperative both citizens and workers figure out where they are headed in the current situation, Dr Barbora concluded.

(The unedited recording of the first session of the workshop can be accessed here. The workshops starts at the 35 minute mark.)

Displacement figures from UNHCR

The second session included Dr. Parivelan, Chairperson, Center of Statelessness and Refugee Studies, School of Law and Constitutional Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities (CRG member), Ms. Sucharita Sengupta, Doctoral Fellow, The Graduate Institute, Geneva, Switzerland (CRG member) and Dr. Samata Biswas, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Sanskrit College and University (CRG member).

Dr. Parivelan opened the session with a short introduction to forced migration and global politics, ethnicity, religion and human rights violation being its major causes rendering eighty million as stateless. Forced migration encompasses the involuntary displacement of the people due to conflicts, natural disasters and economic stability. He dealt with the gaps in the International Refugee Protection Laws and National Laws, with focus on how these gaps in the policies adopted is linked with the discrimination exerted on them.  Having legal vacuums added to the emergence of COVID has triggered new groups refused citizenship, made to flee then assumed as stateless refugees. The virus has brought concerns regarding erosion in the legal obligations related to access to protection of the human rights of refugee laws. The definition of “Refugee” in Article 1 of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees indicated of a “…well-founded fear of being persecuted for race, religion, nationality” but India is not signatory to it, rendering the entire concept of refugees outside the law. Multiple tags given to the same group brings forth a problematic count on the group numbers and data. Citing how a Democracy can make the protection laws inclusive to all with special attention for migrant women and children, Dr. Parivelan concluded with the need to change existing laws and minimize challenges with proper advocacy.

Ms. Sucharita Sengupta spoke on “Contextualizing Statelessness through the Rohingyas” and approaching the concept through refugee studies. She spoke of an emerging school of thought within statelessness that does not view it as a “lack” hence not providing undue emphasis on the Modern State structure that considers the State as sacrosanct. “Statelessness” thus matters only when considered in terms of the State. Therefore the denial of citizenship in Myanmar could be seen as victimization of a population, but it is imperative to understand the problems they face are conceptualized within “statelessness” in order to understand their movement for citizenship. Ms. Sengupta spoke on the dichotomy of genocide/conflict where Western scholars claim this is a conflict but Scholars on Rohingyan issues assert “conflict” involves two parties whereas genocide, the deliberate killing of an ethnic group, is what materialized. From the timeline presented, it was seen the group came into limelight in 2012 with a population of more than a million refugees. Ms. Sengupta’s visit in 2015 showed younger refugees being aware of their basic rights, claiming not only food or shelter but education unavailability of which could lead to “depression, frustration and lack of unity”. Although the adults retain the trauma, the entire landscape of the camps has changed with clamoring media attention. New hotels for INGOs have risen and employed many refugees, hence empowering them. Many have paid hefty amounts to Bangladeshi brokers and created false IDs to cross the borders into Bangladeshi Universities. The lack of education has rendered the Hindus and the Buddhists (In direct conflict with the Rohingyas) as one and same for them. Ms. Sengupta ended her presentation with hopes for a more coherent representation among the Rohingyas in the future and conclusion in classifying them as “weak sufferers.”

File photo of a Rohingya camp in Bangladesh. Courtesy Dhaka Tribune.

Dr Samata Biswas focused on the old World History and recent past to deliberate upon the lessons it provided. She began with a report of the infamous Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of the US Homeland Security Force that demanded foreign students residing in US have to return if their classes were held online and deported four hundred people of Haitian origin to Haiti, which has only three ICU beds. Quoting an essay by Sandro Mezzadra and Maurice Stierl from Open Democracy, Dr. Biswas said “What this virus has brought out is that the migrants embody in the harshest way the contradictions and tensions surrounding the freedom of movement but simultaneously the denial of movement.” In defining the relationship of the pandemic and the attack on immigrants, she used the word “attack” to show how authoritarian regimes around the world have forced lockdowns that have adversely affected internal migrants and the association between Wars declared on the virus, seen essentially as the “outsider” and so are the migrants. She quoted examples to show how society always blames the marginalized, from the “foreigner” bringing a plague in Oedipus Rex based on Greek Historian Thucydides’ records of the Plague of Athens, killing more than seventy thousand people to exchange of food, culture and disease between Europe and Americas, the Colombian Exchange which brought in thirteen major diseases which affected 95% of the natives within a century of Columbus’s landing. Mary Malone, a poor Irish immigrant seemingly responsible for spreading Typhoid to every single family in the UK was quarantined for twenty six years solely due to her marginality. In the 1980s the proliferation of HIV in South Africa was connected to the “Male Migrant Infector” working in African diamond mines and infecting, through in his practice and circular migration, women workers. Many practitioners seized this model as this appeared better than the African Promiscuity Model – one racist and another anti-migrant. Five factors Dr. Biswas mentioned that link migration to spread of AIDS were displacement, military activity, economic disruption, psychological stress and increased migration. Focusing on if travel restrictions actually work at all, Dr. Biswas claimed it is imperative to take care of population after they arrive than stopping movement because people are unlikely to move into a place with infection if they have safe home. She concluded with the need for an inclusive society during times of strengthened totalitarian regimes and deepening inequalities within race and gender.

The floor was open for participant questions and the short film “Calcutta: A Migrant City” by CRG was shared for additional awareness.

Dr.Parivelan concluded the session with challenges of forced migration and a need to address ongoing issues amidst the crisis. Dr. Mousumi Bhattacharjee, faculty of History, gave out the valedictory session discussing the economic complications of the migrants in a post-COVID world and humanitarian approach to the marginalized in the following generations. The webinar brought into limelight the diverse complications and conceivable explanations to the pertinent problem of global forced migration.

The unedited recording of the second session of the workshop is available here.

Arna Dirghangi is an undergraduate student of English Literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. She can be reached at dirghangiarna@gmail.com.

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