Current Affairs

Trans-Border Migration: Bridging the Gap between State and Human Security

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    2nd May, 2021


  • Trans-border migration was not considered a severe threat in South Asia in the immediate aftermath of Partition in 1947, at least until the passport system was introduced in the early 1950s as the phase was marked as a period of political transition in the newly independent states of India and Pakistan.
  • Indeed, the debate on trans-border migration heightened only in the past few decades and today, this phenomenon is regarded as a massive security challenge for the modern nation-state.
  • The ‘mixed’ and massive flow of people out of one South Asian country to another, exerts pressures on the recipient country’s resources and tests the limits of its governance systems.
  • Very often the undocumented migrants are perceived to be ‘illegal outsiders’ and ‘encroachers’.
  • They are faced with economic and identity crises which, multiplied manifold, accumulate to a serious humanitarian emergency. 

This following brief examines the phenomenon of migration—both legal and voluntary, and illegal and forced—against the dichotomous perspectives of ‘state security’ and ‘human security’.

Understanding trans-border migration

  • The migration of people across countries in search of better life opportunities and security, is a constant process that has been ongoing since humans began building communities.
  • It was when the modern concept of the territorial nation-state emerged, after the Treaties of Westphalia (1648) that this phenomenon became a problem to be dealt with and solved.
  • Indeed, the term ‘migration’ attracts political and social controversy, whereas ‘mobility’ does not.
  • The identity of a territorially defined modern state is premised upon its boundaries and the identity of the people who reside within those boundaries.
  • States aim to safeguard both the territorial sanctity as well as demographic sanctity in order to uphold their coherent identity as a sovereign political unit in the modern state system.

What factors influences migration?

  • Migration is influenced by both pull and push factors, although not in simplistic ways.
  • However, major factors influencing people to move can be classified into following categories. They are:
    • economic factors
    • demographic factors
    • socio-cultural factors
    • political factors 
    • miscellaneous factors

Voluntary and forced migration

  • It is important to make a distinction between “voluntary” and “forced” migration:
    • voluntary refers to movement by choice
    • forced refers to movement compelled by any combination of political, economic, social and environmental reasons

What are the major challenges posed by migration?

  • Threat to resources and governance ecosystem

Cross-border migration poses security challenges for the modern nation-state, as the influx of populations exert massive pressures on a country’s resources and governance ecosystems.

  • Threat to jurisdiction: Undocumented migration of people from one country to another poses a formidable threat to both the territorial as well as demographic jurisdiction of a country.
  • Paranoid situation: The identity of the trans-border migrants in an alien land triggers crucial issues related to national identity, political membership, and citizenship—all being defined within the binary of what is “legal” and what is not. T9refore, cross-border migration makes nation states paranoid—defined as they are by territory—about their security and identity.
  • Increased vulnerabilities of labours: Victims of forced, undocumented migration do not benefit from any protection. On the contrary, they are most often in a situation of illegality outside the domain of national law and are extremely vulnerable.
  • Fundamental crisis: The undocumented migrants, for their part, not only struggle for their livelihood but often face fundamental crises of identity and belonging.
  • Threat to State
  • Migration throws two types of challenges for a receiving state:
    • first, the flow of people into another territory can threaten the political and cultural pre-eminence of the local population
    • second, the presence of migrants exerts great pressure on the economic resources of the host country
  • Moreover, migrants are often regarded as “destitute”, “impoverished”, and “resource starved”; this makes them vulnerable to suspicions from among the local people.
  • And despite the figure of the immigrant or refugee being ‘impoverished’ and ‘destitute’, it creates a sense of uneasiness in the migrant-receiving state as well as animosity within its natives.
  • Securitisation of borders
  • The fear of the migrants, refugees, stateless people and the negative perception of them as usurpers of land, jobs, security, culture and dominance of the local people propels the phenomenon of securitisation of borders: borders are hardened to prevent any encroachment by the “alien migrants”.
  • The term ‘refugee’ or ‘immigrant’ is thus transformed in a “limit concept” to determine who is a legitimate citizen and who is an outsider—categories that are embedded in a grid of inclusion and exclusion.
  • Concerns for territorial sector
  • The act of crossing the international boundary violates the jurisdiction of the sovereign state, thereby making migration a security concern of that territorial state.
  • The state reacts by safeguarding its boundaries and reinforcing the inviolability of its borders.
  • The problem lies in the conflation of the concept of hard border and restricting the flow of people, perceiving it entirely from the domain of state security and leaving unattended the rights of the undocumented migrants, refugees, and the stateless.
  • Migration and National Security
  • Historically, national security has been defined based on threats like external aggression or military warfare.
  • As the traditional military threats have receded over the decades, national security is being increasingly defined according to non-traditional threats: social, cultural, environmental, demographic, ecological, and technological.
  • Among these is migration, which has emerged as a “monumental security threat” for nation-states.
  • The cross-border flow of people creates more serious foreign policy crisis when the host country views the influx of people into its territory as a result of “coercively engineered migration” perpetrated by the sending state.
  • State and human security
  • The migration of people across borders poses threats both to state and human security.
  • The presence of ‘illegal’ immigrants in their territory makes the nation states paranoid about their national security as well as the interest of their native population.
  • In turn, the concern for state security jeopardises the prospect of suitable conditions for the undocumented migrants to sustain themselves within the territorial boundaries of their host state.
  • This creates a dichotomous positioning of the nation-states towards the immigrants: between paranoia, and the imperative of care.
  • The country hardens its borders by militarisation, border patrols, surveillance, and erection of physical walls to prevent the flow of immigrants.
  • This means that the very process of migration and the presence of migrants is itself securitised and politicised. This has relegated the immigrants to the margins, to be regarded as ‘aliens’. Such a perception of migrants as ‘other’ has been established in the political imagination of the state, as well as in the everyday transaction of social and economic life. This compels migrants to make themselves invisible to escape “everyday forms of violence.”

How migration becomes political issue?

  • With the rise of democracies, the issue of migration and forced migration has become more politicised and securitised. 
  • The significance of demographic strength in determining political outcomes in a democracy makes the presence of large number of undocumented ‘immigrants’ controversial which can eventually have further economic and cultural implications for the native people.
  • Historically, immigrants and refugees who have fled their native countries due to adverse conditions have found refuge in foreign lands.
  • But such magnanimity has been conditional, temporary, and selective, based largely on the generosity of the receiving states and not premised on any obligatory legal framework.
  • Yet official government positions, and public opinion, regarding refugees and immigrants are neither unified nor constant.
  • Over time, the empathy shown to refugees is seen to turn to hostility towards ‘illegal outsiders’ in many countries.

Why ‘violence-induced migration’ is a constant possibility in India?

  • India has been one of the destinations for the persecuted and displaced refugees and stateless people from neighbouring states, even more so in the eastern side due to its more porous borders.
  • Three episodes of violence in India’s eastern neighbours were defining.
  • Partition: First, the partition along religious lines. As a receiving country for the refugees, India has made efforts to rehabilitate them (albeit inconsistently) while also recalibrating its ideas of citizenship.
    • However, religious prejudices, the psychological scars of ‘collective violence’, and the lingering suspicion towards the people on the other side of the border, have kept the legacy of partition alive.
    • The threat of sporadic, ‘everyday violence’, makes violence-induced migration into India a constant possibility.
  • Mass movement in 1964: The second mass movement of people into eastern India was in 1964. Following the construction of the Kaptai Dam in erstwhile East Pakistan, as well as religious persecution, Buddhist Chakmas and Hindu Hajongs were evicted from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of erstwhile East Pakistan. 
    • The displaced population crossed into the Indian border and were given refuge by the Indian state. These refugees were eventually rehabilitated in the empty land in the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) in present-day Arunachal Pradesh. They were used as pawns to settle inter-tribal tussles in a remote periphery of India.
    • In 1987, when Arunachal Pradesh became a full-fledged provincial state, the issue of the presence of Chakma and Hajongs became a bone of contention for the indigenous tribes of the state.
    • They viewed the refugees as ‘outsiders’ who would leave them politically, economically and culturally marginalised in their ‘own land’. Today the Hajongs and the Chakmas continue to live in the margins of society in Arunachal Pradesh.
  • Liberation war of Bangladesh: Third, as discussed earlier, the huge influx of people into India happened in the wake of the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971.

International Legal Framework

  • The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW) defines migrant worker under Article 1 as “a person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.” 
  • The 1951 United Nations (UN) Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defined a ‘refugee’ as a person who “as a result of events occurring before first January 1951 and owing to  well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of its nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” 
  • There is also the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, a regional, non-obligatory legal regime adopted in 1984 by Latin-American countries for protection of refugees.
  • In 1954 the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Person defined the ‘stateless’ as a “person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”.
    • Whether or not a person is stateless can be determined on the basis of an assessment of relevant nationality laws and how these laws are implemented by the state.

Adopted framework in India

  • Although India is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention of 1951 and the Protocol of 1967, it is obligated by the other international legal regimes to deal with the refugees in a humane manner.
  • Most importantly, the doctrine of non-refoulement remains a compelling legal motivation for India.
  • As India is signatory to multiple human rights regimes, the country should create a more institutionalised mechanism of humanely dealing with refugees.
  • India is signatory to the six core human rights covenants, and also the two Optional Protocols to the Convention of the Rights of the Child.
  • The first set of rights in the Human Rights Declaration from Article 2 to Article 21 have heavily influenced India’s domestic constitutional rights enshrined in Article 12 to Article 35 of the Indian Constitution.
  • Indeed, certain fundamental rights guaranteeing life and personal liberty (Article 14) as well as equal legal protection (Article 21) are accorded to not only Indian citizens, but also to non-citizen residents on Indian soil. 
  • The second set of rights guaranteed in Articles 22 to 28 of the Human Rights Declaration are also incorporated under Directive Principles of State Policy – Article 36 to 51 of the Indian Constitution.
  • Therefore, not only do India’s international obligations mandate a humanitarian approach towards undocumented migrants and refugees, but also its own domestic legal apparatus.
  • However, unless these protections are not deeply embedded in the Constitution’s justiciable frame and backed by political will, such existing legal pronouncements will fail to translate to real protections for refugees and the stateless.

What needs to be done?

  • Refugee law: The refugees must be registered by the government and given a legitimate refugee status. For that purpose, India should pass a Refugee Law.
  • International assistance: India could seek assistance from the country office of the UNHCR, and aim to design a straightforward official procedure for dealing with refugees and stateless people.
  • Cross-border trust building mechanism: A comprehensive cross-border trust-building mechanism needs to be established to facilitate information-sharing and the full comprehension of the situation on both sides of the border.
  • Promotion of dialogue: It is important to adopt a more effective channel of communication between India and the home country of the refugees, to facilitate their eventual safe return. 
  • Research: Also, there is a need for further research on the various dimensions of both violence-induced migration and economic migration.


A more humane, yet regulated, cross-border migration policy will systematise the process of migration and possibly herald the beginning of the ‘desecuritisation’ of migration in South Asia. The road to such a humane approach towards migration would require an extraordinary amount of political understanding and goodwill between the governments across the borders.

There is a need for a holistic framework that will harmonise concerns for national state security with more humane and secure living and working conditions for refugees, stateless people, and undocumented economic migrants.