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The Lede Exclusive – Migrants Are Not Second Class Citizens: Shashi Tharoor to The Lede

In an exclusive interview with The Lede, MP Shashi Tharoor says the government’s move to introduce orange passports for Indian migrants is an “offensive” move

A decision to change the colour of passport for Indian migrants depending on their educational and economic status is like treating them as a second-class citizen, which reflects a discriminatory mind-set of the present government, Dr Shashi Tharoor, parliamentarian and chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, said.

“Frankly speaking, I think this is an unacceptable and offensive decision. The very fact that some of our citizens will have differently coloured passports is not compatible with the long standing egalitarian principles of our democracy,” Dr Tharoor told The Lede in an exclusive interview.

According to the Indian government, citizens who fall under the Emigration Check Required (ECR) category will soon have passports with orange jackets, instead of the dark blue that has so far been the colour of all passports under the ECR and non-ECR categories. ECR passports are mainly given to non-matriculate workers who wish to work in the Gulf countries and in Southeast Asia.

As per the Emigration Act, 1983, Emigration Check Required (ECR) categories of Indian passport holders, require to obtain “Emigration Clearance” from the office of Protector of Emigrants (POE), the Ministry of External Affairs for migrating to the following 18 countries.

The countries are United Arab Emirates (UAE), The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Malaysia, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Syria, Lebanon, Thailand, Iraq (emigration banned).

However, the MEA’s Emigration Policy Division have allowed ECR passport holders traveling abroad for purposes others than employment to leave the country on production of valid passport, valid visa and return ticket at the immigration counters at international airports in India with effect from 01 October 2007.

If the Regional Passport Office has issued Indian passport either with endorsement of “Emigration Check Required” or no endorsement of “Emigration Check Required” in the passport, Protector of Emigrant clearance is required only when there is “Emigration Check Required” endorsement in the passport.

Dr Tharoor said that the very premise of this decision – discriminating against the citizens of a country based on their economic status and educational qualifications – makes it inherently unfair.

“And given its problematic nature, I certainly do not think that this was a well-thought decision by the government,” he added.

A UN report released in December 2017, says that India tops the world in the number of migrants sent abroad and more than half of the 16.59 million live in the Gulf region.

The United Arab Emirates has the largest number of Indian migrants, who number 3.31 million, up from 9,78,992 in 2000, followed by the US with 2.3 million, up from 1.04 million, the report said.

Activists claim that more than 70% of the Indian migrants are blue-collar workers in Gulf.

“As a lot of construction activities in the Gulf countries, there is a huge demand for unskilled and semi skilled workers who fall under the ECR category,” Bheem Reddy, a migrant rights activist in Telengana, told The Lede.

According to a paper presented in the parliament in December 2017, the government maintains the data in respect of Emigration Check Required (ECR) passport holders, travelling legally to any of the 18 ECR countries for overseas employment.

“The total number of Indian workers emigrating to six Gulf countries during the last three years was around 17.86 lakh and the total number of workers from the State of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana for the same period was around 2 lakh,” the paper added.

Additionally, the Indian parliament data in July 2017, reveals that there are 507,296 Indians migrated to 18 ECR countries in 2016.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has been taking measures to improve passport services over the last decade. The previous government prioritised quick passport delivery. And the present government, apart from opening new passport centres, is streamlining the process for passport application and delivery.

And in a new move, to make passports more gender-just, especially after a few cases of single mothers applying for their children’s passports came to the Ministry (the address on the last page includes the father’s/ legal guardian’s name), the MEA has done away with the last page to be printed in “due course”.

It was while initiating a change in passports that the decision to introduce orange passports for the ECR category was taken.

Reportedly, passport holders under the ECR category face exploitation especially in the Middle East countries where the Kafala system, the bonded labour system is followed.

The Indian government claims that change is colour for Indian migrants falling under ECR category will get them priority in protecting their rights.

However, Dr Tharoor says that on the contrary, it looks like this new feature is going to make the process more cumbersome for new applicants. It will be seen everywhere as a “second-class” Indian passport.

“We are already hearing news of single or divorced mothers complaining of facing severe difficulties at the hand of emigration officials when it came to applying for passports for their children,” he said.

“Discrimination of this manner takes away the workers’ fundamental right to be treated equally. It is for this reason that the parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, which I chair, has asked the MEA to brief us on this proposal,” he added.

While talking on the alternative to protect migrants’ rights, he said – “The foremost requirement would be to make a comprehensive assessment of the deficiencies within the existing Emigration Act and make suitable amendments to it, as I have been demanding for more than three years.”

“It is striking that a country like the Philippines has a Migrant Workers Act, which is noteworthy for the safeguards it has put in place for their citizens working abroad. This is why I have been clamouring for a new Emigration Act, as promised by the Government’s own Ministry for Overseas Indian Affairs before it was wound up,” he said.

“In addition to reforming the Emigration Act and sensitising migrating workers of their rights and channels of consular remedies, we also need to ensure that existing databases tracking migrations from India to the region are up to date and reflect the onground realities,” he added.

According to Dr Tharoor, this will highlight any discrepancies and define the number of Indians in the regions allowing the government to track their locations.

To provide safe, orderly and regular migration for the Indian migrants abroad, especially in the Gulf countries, any successful intervention by the Indian government must adopt a sensitive and proactive approach and factor in the dimensions of the issues faced by Indian migrants in the Gulf.

“These would require being cognizant of the spread and magnitude of various forms of deception and abuse by visa brokers and recruiting agents, compounded by the lack of awareness of pre-departure training and the current lack of access to remedies, both consular and judicial, for these workers. Above all, ensuring that the existing agreements between the concerned states are acted upon, implemented and followed through, must be a priority for all parties,” he added.

According to the Indian government, when the India Security Press, Nashik, is ready new passports will be printed.

Until then, blue passports with the last page for both ECR and non-ECR categories will remain in circulation.

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