Guest post by Sujata Ramachandran, Research Associate, Southern African Research CentreQueen's University, Canada

Recently, in a rare move and as a “goodwill gesture,” India repatriated nine-year-old Afroza with some public ceremony. By all accounts, it was the concerted efforts of several Indian and Bangladeshi human rights groups as well as a senior Indian Border Security Force (BSF) official troubled by the incarceration of very young migrants that made this encouraging move possible.

The other details of this account are, however, less benevolent. When she was not even five years old, Afroza was arrested with her mother Manowara and six-year-old brother Munna near the border while attempting to revisit their home village in Bangladesh’s Natore district. Manowara had migrated with her two children to New Delhi, India’s capital city, to seek work after her husband abandoned them. Found to be violating Indian immigration laws, she was sentenced to serve two years “rigorous imprisonment” in a West Bengal prison. A steep fine of Rupees 10,000 (approximately £98) was also imposed on her. Munna was sent to a Children’s Home, while Afroza joined her mother in prison. Afroza may likely have spent another year or more incarcerated. But Manowara’s sudden demise due to an unidentified ailment resulted in her release a few months later to Daya Bari, an institution for the detainees’ children, where she remained until her return to Bangladesh.

Afroza’s public repatriation also drew critical scrutiny away from the unfavourable verdict, a week before, in the high-profile shooting death of fifteen-year-old migrant Felani. A “special court” organized by the BSF declared its personnel Amiya Ghosh “not guilty” due to “inconclusive and insufficient” evidence. The General Security Force Court (GSFC) was later urged to revisit its verdict by the BSF, which admitted “excessive use of force” in the case of Felani. Still, little progress appears to have been made so far in the revision trial.

Felani had been killed while straddling the fence separating the two countries during the risky journey with her father to their native village for her upcoming wedding. The shocking image of her young, lifeless body, hanging upside down from the expanding, partly electrified barbed-wire fence being constructed by India, drew widespread international criticism. Indeed, Felani has become the tragic symbol of mounting violence in recent years against migrant crossovers at this common border (for more on Felani, see Ramachandran 2011). Liberal critics have bemoaned the use of force to deter such migrations and associated rise of jingoistic nationalism in the Indian subcontinent. Others point to the common linguistic and cultural bonds across borders, plus social relationships (despite territorial divisions) connecting these countries. These bonds are increasingly being undermined in the new politics of borders and migration.

Unhappy with India’s intensified border controls, including the detention of Bangladeshis found without proper documents like passports and visas, its neighbour has begun to arrest and incarcerate Indians found in similar circumstances. Take the case of Ariful Sheikh who was only four years old when Bangladesh’s Border Guards (BG) arrested him with his grandparents as they tried to visit a sick relative. They were sentenced to pay a fine of Taka 500 each (around £4), failing which they would serve two months in prison. Ariful had been incarcerated for more than a year with his grandparents at the Kushtia prison when Bangladesh finally released him, and that too, after several prominent rights groups intervened on their behalf. A troubling aspect of this case is that they were imprisoned even after payment of fines imposed on them. Official corruption only worsened their difficulties.

Informal border crossings have been a longstanding feature of migratory patterns in the global South. Even so, the recent criminalization of such migrations in the global North, or crimmigration and immcarceration as it has been provocatively labelled, is slowly being witnessed in geographical contexts in the South. As more countries transform these migrations into “out of the norm,” sinister, criminal acts undermining national security, that are to be discouraged and punished with imprisonment, monetary penalties and even worse lethal violence, what kind of future can we imagine for them, other than an entirely undesirable, highly risky one? What will happen to these humblest of border-crossers, who are often unfamiliar with maps of countries or immigration regimes dependent on passports and visas, cannot afford to acquire such papers and for whom migration often acts as a meagre lifeline for survival. If the experiences of other contexts such as the Mexico-United States corridor can serve as any indicator, then the migrations themselves will not end. This is because the structural forces of extreme poverty, inequality and deprivation that produce such flows have remained constant, even intensified. But the deepening precariousness attached to such crossings and dangerous conditions endured by migrants will be a fresh, unwavering feature. That this instability will be extended to its most vulnerable social segments, namely children, is already becoming evident.

The Bangladesh-India border has been identified as the top migration and remittance corridor in the global South. It is not difficult to understand how these extensive linkages have developed. Long shared histories combined with strong social and cultural ties across borders have contributed to the formation and growth of this corridor. So have extremely large-scale refugee movements linked to nation-state formation, influencing the nature of contemporary flows. Unfortunately, such a classification based on numbers can easily prop up popular exclusionary discourses that demand such draconian actions against border-crossers, instead of emphasizing the positive benefits attached to migrations. It should also be pointed out that far less attention has been paid to the difficult and increasingly harsh conditions under which these remittances are produced, cross-border migrations occur, and urgent circumstances that compel migrants to leave their homes, risking such dangerous situations. The optimistic narrative of soaring migrant remittances in present-day discussions of the migration-development relationship is incomplete without these sobering considerations.

For a related post, see 'Walking the Thin line/s' by Rimple Mehta.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Ramachandran S (2013) Between Exigency and Excess. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/between-exigency-and-excess/ (Accessed [date]).