Over the last two years, the world has witnessed the tragic deaths of thousands of people from different countries drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean while trying to enter Europe or Thailand or Malaysia. The latest such incident off the coast of Tunisia in North Africa has drawn the particular attention of Bangladesh. Out of the nearly 60 persons missing, 37 were of Bangladeshi origin.
It has subsequently been found that many of them were relatives who had paid large sums of money to gangs involved in human trafficking, working out of Bangladesh. Some of the perpetrators of such criminal activity have been identified and some taken into custody by the law enforcement authorities. Investigation over the past few days have also revealed how these same criminal groups have been associated in similar nefarious activities in the context of trying to illicitly traffic Rohingya families into Thailand and Malaysia.
Illegal immigration may be described as a dynamics whereby there is migration of people into a country in violation of the immigration laws of that country, or the continued residence of people without the legal right to live in that country (through overstaying their permitted visa period).
The connotation of the term “illegal immigrant” has however become the subject of debate in the media. Campaigns have originated in the United States where arguments are being made that the act of immigrating illegally does not make the people themselves illegal, but rather they are "people who have immigrated illegally". In the United States, a "Drop the I-Word" campaign was launched in 2010 advocating for the use of terms such as undocumented immigrants or unauthorized immigrants when referring to the foreign nationals who reside in a country illegally.
Not everyone agree with such a denotation- due to adverse publicity arising from Mexicans crossing into the USA illegally. Consequently, after discussion within the civil society both in Europe and the USA, consensus is emerging on shortening the term "illegal immigrants" to "illegals". Distinction between the larger group referred to as unauthorized immigrants and the smaller subgroup referred to as criminal immigrants is however still being maintained.
Illegal immigration generally takes place from poorer to richer countries with greater economic opportunities. Such a scenario related to illegal residence in another country creates the risk of being detained and deported. In rare cases, asylum seekers who have been denied asylum may sometimes get a temporary residence permit if the home country refuses to receive the person.
This situation arises out of the principle of non-refoulement which exists within the ambit of the International Refugee Convention. This particularly applies if the person under consideration has suffered severe torture in his country of origin. The European Court of Human Rights has upheld a few judgments in this regard consistent with the contents of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Socio-economists have been trying to identify the reasons for illegal immigration. They have concluded that the following are the most likely causes for such activity-
(a) Trade liberalization- In recent years; developing countries have been pursuing the benefits of globalization by adopting measures to liberalize trade. However, rapid opening of domestic markets are also leading to displacement of large numbers of agricultural or unskilled workers. This is persuading large numbers to seek employment and a higher quality of life by illegal immigration;
(b) Poverty- It needs to be remembered that undocumented immigrants are generally not impoverished by standards of their home countries. They are comparatively not members of the middle class but they are slightly better off as they are able to generate funds for succeeding in their efforts associated with illegal migration. It needs to be noted here that sometimes natural disasters or over-population (that leads to scarcity of employment opportunities for less skilled people) also act as an important factor in the case of Least Developed Countries;
(c) Family reunification in new country of residence- This has become a significant natural factor. Many undocumented immigrants naturally seek to live with loved ones, such as a spouse or other family members. Having family who have immigrated or being from a community with many immigrants gradually becomes a suitable predictor of one's choice to immigrate than continuing to live through the receipt of remittances from abroad.
(d) Wars, violence and abuse of Human Rights- These three factors quite understandably, have assumed special significance within the matrix of unauthorized arrival and illegal entry into another country and then seeking asylum. Repression then becomes the fundamental cause. Somebody who flees such a situation is not considered as an undocumented immigrant. Many jurists consider that such victims of forced displacement can apply for asylum in the country they fled to and should be granted refugee status.
In this context references are made to the 1951 Refugee Convention whereby refugees need to be exempted from immigration laws and should be provided with protection from the country they entered. However, countries that have not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention are likely to consider refugees and asylum seekers as illegal immigrants. This has become particularly applicable in the case of Bangladesh who has been hosting more than a million Rohingya Muslim refugees from the Rakhine State in Myanmar. We are looking after their human rights needs (access to healthcare, food, proper housing and education facilities) but also at the same time trying to repatriate them back to their own country where they can live as citizens with dignity and security.
It would be pertinent at this point to note that the whole process linked with human trafficking and illegal migration has over the past few years assumed dangerous proportions due to certain criminal acts that have developed within this paradigm.
In some regions, people that are en route to their destination country are sometimes kidnapped, for ransom. In some instances, they are also tortured, raped and killed if the requested ransom does not arrive. Some women are at times forced into sexual slavery to avoid charges of illegal immigration.
Such violent action and persecution is normally carried out by members of transnational gangs who engage in the trafficking of human beings between countries. Sometimes undocumented immigrants are also abandoned by their human traffickers if there are difficulties on the way. Such an action quite often leads to deaths, particularly, if the route to the destination means having to cross the sea or a desert
There is also another aspect which gradually creates frustration and anger and sometimes even leads to criminal acts on the part of persons who are undocumented and have entered illegally. They become objects of exploitation by employers who have employed them. Quite often, because of their illegal status these workers are unable to complain to the relevant authorities about not being paid or being under-paid or having to work in unsafe conditions.
This happens because in most countries, including some in Europe or Latin America the penalties against employers are often small and the acceptable identification requirements vague, ill-defined and seldom checked or enforced, making it easy for employers to hire illegal labor.
One factor is very clear. The search for employment is central to illegal international migration. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, undocumented immigrants in the United States often work in dangerous industries such as agriculture and construction. A recent study suggests that the complex web of consequences resulting from illegal immigrant status limits illegal workers' ability to stay safe at work. In addition to physical danger at work, the choice to immigrate for work often entails work-induced lifestyle factors which impact the physical, mental and social health of immigrants and their families.
One needs at this juncture to also draw attention to another important feature linked to illegal residence. This stems from overstaying one’s visa duration limit. Currently, many countries - Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Malaysia and Canada- are suffering from such unauthorized residence.
For example, most of the estimated 200,000 illegal immigrants in Canada are refugee claimants whose refugee applications were rejected but who have not yet been expelled from the country. Official government sources have put the number of visa overstayers in Australia at approximately 50,000. This has been the official number of illegal immigrants for about 25 years and is considered to be low. Other sources have however placed it at up to 100,000, but no detailed study has been completed to quantify this number, which could be significantly higher.
There is also another misuse of the legal process that is undertaken by many who have entered Europe, Australia or North America illegally. This involves in entering into sham marriages where the marriage is contracted into for purely immigration advantage by a couple who are not in a genuine relationship. The common reason for sham marriages is to gain immigration residency and work rights for one or both of the spouses, or for other benefits.
In the United Kingdom, those who arrange, participate in, or officiate over a sham marriage may be charged with a number of offenses, including assisting unlawful immigration and conspiracy to facilitate breach of immigration law. The United States on the other hand has a penalty of a US Dollar250, 000 fine and five-year prison sentences for such arrangements.
Sociologists and economists who have been examining the reasons for this upturn of human trafficking in the case of Bangladesh have made some important observations. They have pointed out that despite moving forward economically, Bangladesh, compared to Sri Lanka and the Philippines continues to suffer from lack of higher education in skilled vocational training.
They have also underlined the need for our youth labor force to learn foreign languages of countries where they need semi-skilled and skilled labor. They have stressed on the need of our younger people seeking jobs abroad learning English, Arabic, French, German, Korean, Japanese and Chinese. Skill training in healthcare, pharmaceutical and leather industries, digital training pertaining to business management and areas related to interior design and interior architecture could make the difference.
If we can achieve this, other countries will be likely to send recruiting teams to Bangladesh instead of our young men falling victims to human traffickers.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.