Increasing Regularity of Irregular Migration

As global migration flows continue to increase, the number of irregular or illegal migrants increases as well. The term irregular migrant refers to an individual who has breached rules or regulations related to migration across national borders—this could take the form of illegal border crossings, overstaying visas, or human trafficking. On a global scale, the reality is that restrictions on legal movement between nations are only becoming stricter, causing routes to legal migration to be scarce, which pushes many individuals towards irregular migration.

India is no exception to the increasing regularity of irregular migration. India’s strategic geographical location, market size, relatively sound economic position, and perceived liberal democratic institutions make it a magnet for migrants within South Asia. The overwhelming majority of immigrants to India come from countries within the region, with Bangladesh being the primary source country, contributing approximately 3.2 million immigrants to India’s migrant stock. In particular, individuals are drawn to migrate from Bangladesh to India because of the high demand for cheap labour, lax policing, and the porous Indo-Bangla border.

It is very hard to quantify the amount of irregular migration that occurs across the Indo-Bangla border. Detection of illegal border crossings and individuals overstaying their visas is difficult due to the porous nature of the border and the ease with which migrants can move around once in India. As with other legal matters, policing of irregular migration within India is complicated by the nation’s vast population and expansive size. First attempts to estimate the magnitude of irregular migration flows from Bangladesh took place during the 2001 Indian census, which estimated that 12 million Bangladeshis entered India illegally since 1971. Using updated data from the last four censuses, the number of irregular migrants from Bangladesh living within India is now estimated at 15 million. With its increasing regularity, irregular migration from Bangladesh has had significant impacts in both the political and economic spheres in India.

In Indian Politics

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is currently in power and running for re-election, has taken large steps against irregular immigration from Bangladesh, in comparison to its predecessors. 2018 saw a large push from Narendra Modi’s BJP government to clamp down on irregular migration through the renewal of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), for the first time since 1951. The NRC is a register of all of the Indian citizens residing in the Northeastern state of Assam. For an individual’s name to be included on the NRC, they must either be able to prove their name was on the electoral rolls prior to 1971 or that they are a descendant of an individual whose name appeared on these rolls. The renewal of the NRC is a direct effort to identify Bangladeshis living in Assam and has resulted in over 4 million individuals being singled out by the Indian government whom face deportation.

It is likely that the BJP will continue to tout its Hindu nationalist rhetoric in the wake of the upcoming election to rouse support for further drastic measures against irregular migration from Bangladesh—measures that do not address the root causes of the issue.  Deploying the issue of Bangladeshi migration to India is a strategic move for the BJP that allows it to stimulate widespread anti-Muslim sentiment across India, as well as denounce its opposition, the Indian National Congress (INC), for inaction on the issue.

In India’s Economy and Labour Market

While causing tension in the political sphere, irregular migration from Bangladesh has also been negatively impacting India’s labour market. One of the major concerns is that high volumes of irregular migrants entering the labour force in India will deteriorate the labour market positions of Indian workers.  An influx of irregular migrant workers results in greater competition for jobs, particularly in the informal sector where the majority of irregular migrants will find employment. Unemployed Indian workers will be less likely to find employment, and those who do find employment will face lower wages, as irregular migrants are willing to accept lower wages. This wage-depressing effect of irregular migration results in decreased consumption and investment on the part of workers, effectively decreasing capital accumulation for India as the host country.

These effects of increased unemployment and lower wages are largely isolated to the low-skilled labour force working within India’s vast informal economy, resulting in the deterioration of their labour market positions and their overall welfare. As a result, irregular migration has negative repercussions on the Indian economy and labour market, making it a concern for both economic and labour policy within India.



Karly Hurlock is an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where she specializes in International Development Policy. She completed her BA in History and Political Science at the University of Guelph, followed by an MA in History at Carleton University. Her previous research focused on the effects of Indian nuclear policy on Canadian development assistance to India. Her research interests include: Canadian relations with South Asia, migration and remittances, and the history of Canadian aid. Karly can be reached at

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.

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