India is moving towards mass emigration

Aman Sethi

What does the term refugee mean to you?

The term “refugee” is a mechanism rooted in geopolitics and ratified by nation states to regulate the freedom of movement of individuals and communities by declaring the circumstances of the flight to be either legitimate or illegitimate. It is also one of the few forms of freedom of movement for the working class that nation states grudgingly accept. In order to understand the power behind words it is often useful to consider what is left out of the narrow constraints on its meaning and definition. If a “refugee” is a foreign presence with a legitimate right to reside in a country other than yours, where are everyone else? Do we all have to be prisoners of our nations forever?

Do you find fleeing poverty less legitimate than fleeing war or political oppression?

The scope of the present questionnaire assumes that the natural state of the human being is to spend his / her entire life in the narrowly limited radius in which he / she was born. In such a framework, the desire to move or migrate is viewed as an exceptional condition that needs to be justified somehow - usually through the trope of tragedy, poverty, or oppression. The assumption that people travel only when they are compelled to travel is a relatively new phenomenon in the long history of human existence. As anthropologist James Scott explains, our long history together “encompasses more than 97 percent of human experience outside of the grain-based nation-states in which almost all of us live today. ”Questions about the“ legitimacy ”of movement repeat without thinking the worn-out language of bureaucracies and control - refugees, social security, integration. This is not the language in which people should speak to or from one another; we must resist the temptation to express ourselves like technocrats and management consultants. If the question is: “What kind of escape is legitimate? - then my answer is: "Every movement is always and under all circumstances legitimate."

And escape from ecological problems?

See answer above.

When do you stop being a refugee?

On a recent reporting trip I made friends with a group of young Afghan men in Istanbul who told me that the European Union was no longer considering Afghans as asylum seekers. "All the places are occupied by the Syrians," an Afghan told me. In Saxony I met a 37-year-old Palestinian who was born in a refugee camp in Lebanon and had just spent a year in Germany, during which he was waiting for his asylum documents to be processed. He too was concerned that the asylum authorities were treating the suffering of the Palestinian people like a trader looking at an old coin that is no longer in circulation; he acknowledges the existence of the coin, but is unsure what value to attach to it. So I think that if someone has been bombed for so long that someone stops being a refugee that the rest of the world sees their social tragedy as a personal misfortune and turns their attention to what is seen as more pressing suffering. That should encourage us to pause and think about whether the notion of refugee should not be a permanent retirement. In a correspondence with the journalist Georg Diez, I suggested replacing the term “refugee” with the word “Musafir” - a term used throughout the Middle East and on the Indian subcontinent to identify a traveler, guest, hiker or visitor.

Do you have a right to asylum?

It is more appropriate to question our relationship to land and territory in a specific sense: Is there such a thing as an ancestral claim to land? How long does this claim go back? Asylum presupposes - once again - that there is a natural relationship between a people and the land that inhabits it, so that these owners of the ancestral land are able to grant asylum to the newcomers. The assumptions behind such questions seem less certain when we consider the fall of the ocean: If someone swims next to you, is they trespassing on your ocean?

If so, is it unconditional or can it be forfeited?

See above.

Do you believe that a society can accept a limited or unlimited number of refugees?

No. Because society does not have the right to decide who becomes part of society. We are all part of society whether society likes it or not. Through our existence we are integrated / assimilated in / to the world of the living.

Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. those who your country is more willing to accept than others? If yes why?

I assume that the cosmopolitan young elites who are fleeing the stagnant salaries and closed societies of their home countries to work for extremely exaggerated fees in the "development sector" across Asia and Africa can be viewed as some sort of privileged economic refugee. However, as I noted earlier, I reject the refugee category. Even if I bitterly regret the predominantly hypocritical nature of the "humanitarian aid / international NGOs" sector, I still celebrate the young people who work under the pretext of "development" to escape the boredom of their hometowns and counteract them to trade an exciting life in the midst of strangers.

In your opinion, are refugees treated fairly in your country?

India has no legal framework to support refugees. The country has signed neither the 1952 United Nations Refugee Convention nor the 1967 Protocol, but according to the UNHCR it is home to just over 200,000 refugees from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Tibet. Recently the Indian government proposed legislation to give refuge to non-Indian Hindus who can show they are being oppressed by their national governments, but New Delhi city police have a special cell to help out undocumented immigrants, mostly Muslims to catch and deport from Bangladesh. In India, as in other countries, questions of “fairness” seem largely left to chance when it comes to refugee rights.

Would cuts in the social system in your country be acceptable to you if this would help to take in more refugees?

Given the almost complete absence of any social security system in India, I doubt anyone would notice any cuts - no matter what the reason.

What are the prerequisites for successful integration for you? There are minimum requirements

- to the newcomers?
- to the recipient?

Social life is not defined by integration, but by adaptation. Society is defined by the result of struggles between competing groups - farm workers moving from the country to the city, migrant workers returning home after long years of working abroad - some of them have become more liberal, others more conservative; Women pushing to make public areas safer and more liberal; religious demagogues who vilify young people who show affection in public; multinational capital pushing for changes in the use of land to accommodate shopping malls, factories and licensed coffee shop chains. Each group tries different languages ​​of debate and adaptation to make specific claims against public resources. Refugees are no different. The conversation about integration assumes that a poor German has more in common with an elite German than with a poor Syrian. It's not always true.

Do you know refugees personally?

I come from a refugee family who left their home in what is now Pakistan in 1947 and moved to what is now India.

Do you actively support refugees?

Not directly, no.

How will the refugee situation develop in your country?

a) in the next two years?

That is hard to say; Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are now far better off than India in providing basic services to their respective populations. So I doubt that India will see any boom in the number of asylum seekers.

b) in the next two decades?

Climate change and rising sea levels can flood Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (as well as substantial parts of India), so the next two decades could be marked by mass migration and social turmoil.

Can you imagine a world without refugees?

I cannot imagine a world without migration and movement, and therefore - as a corollary - I cannot imagine a world without refugees in return. Because what is a refugee if not a traveler whose travel documents are a little questionable?

Have you or your family had any previous experience of escaping?

In 1947 the Indian subcontinent was split into two countries. My grandparents were among the hundreds of thousands who moved from what is now Pakistan to what is now India. So, in a sense, I come from a refugee family.

Do you think you will ever become a refugee in your life?

- If yes why?

I think there is a very good chance that one day I will become a refugee. Climate change could make large parts of the world uninhabitable.

- How do you prepare for it?

I have good relationships with the Goethe-Institut.

- Which country would you flee to?

I don't know any country that would take me in - maybe an intellectually vibrant society like South Africa?

How much home do you need? *

Home, as Mahfouz says, is not where you are born, but where all attempts to escape end. So home is a trap, and we should all try to use as little “home” as possible.

* This question is taken from Max Frisch's questionnaire on “Heimat”.


Aman Sethi, born 1983, is a journalist and writer. His breakthrough as an author came with his first book A free man, in which he tells the real life story of the protagonist Mohammed Ashraf and reflects on New Delhi and its changes. He was among other things with the Crossword Book Award (2011) excellent. The International Committee of the Red Cross also awarded him an award in 2011 for the best Indian article of the year on humanitarian issues. Sethi also worked as an Africa correspondent in Addis Ababa.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V.
October 2016

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