16.01.2013 - UNESCO Office in New Delhi

Internal Migrants in India: The Millions Who Cannot Exercise their Rights

© UNESCO/M. Hainry

On the occasion of International Migrants Day, UNESCO and UNICEF unveiled their three most recent publications on internal migration in India to the Media on 18 December 2012. Gathering reputed demographers, development practitioners, gender and child experts, the event provided an opportunity to call attention and advance knowledge on the crucial issue of internal migration in India.

Internal migration in India accounts for a large population of 309 million, or nearly 30 percent of the total population as per Census of India 2001 . This figure is indeed staggering when compared with estimates of Indian emigrants, i.e. 11.4 million .  Internal migrants, of which 70.7 percent are women, are excluded from the economic, cultural, social and political lives of society and are often treated as second-class citizens.

The constraints faced by migrants are many - lack of formal residency rights; lack of identity proof; lack of political representation; low-paid, insecure or hazardous work; limited access to state-provided services such as health and education and discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, class or gender. Yet internal migration is given very low priority by the government in policy and practice, partly due to a serious knowledge gap on its extent, nature and magnitude. The difficulties faced by internal migrants are dismissed on the grounds that the Constitution of India does not restrict free mobility within the country. A growing misunderstanding of the migratory phenomenon is often at the root of misconceived policies or inaction regarding migration. 

Dr N.C. Saxena, Member, National Advisory Council and Commissioner to the Supreme Court on the Right To Food Campaign pointed out that “as compared to the rural poor for whom there exist a large number of programmes, for urban migrants, there are no policies”. In the absence of proofs of identity and residence, internal migrants are unable to claim social protection entitlements and remain excluded from government sponsored schemes and programmes. Professor Ram Bhagat, Head of the Department of Migration and Urban Studies, International Institute for Population Sciences argued that “one of the strong barriers to migration is ‘sons of the soil’ politics which we see in cities like Mumbai and Hyderabad”. Migrants are negatively portrayed as a “burden” to society, discouraged from settling down and excluded from urban planning initiatives. 

Women and children are among the most invisible and vulnerable among internal migrants. “Data and data analysts assume that the bulk of womens migration is associational migration and this hides a large part of the story”, said Prof. Indu Agnihotri, Director, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi. Migrant children face disruption of regular schooling, adversely affecting their human capital formation and contributing to the inter-generational transmission of poverty. Ms. Nina Nayak, Member, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) highlighted the fact that children left behind by migrant parents remain extremely vulnerable to sex trafficking.

“Internal migrants positively contribute to society. There is an urgent need to build awareness on internal migration and adopt a human rights-based approach for migrant inclusion in society”, said Mr. Shigeru Aoyagi, Director and UNESCO Representative to Bhutan, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka. Noting that an increase in internal migration in the future is inevitable, Mr. Rakesh Ranjan, Director (Housing and Urban Affairs), Planning Commission said that “we would need to prepare our cities”, and that the Draft 12th Five Year Plan 2012-2017 document in particular recognizes, “Cities should be able to provide basic services to migrant workers, their families and other vulnerable sections of society including women and children.”

The UNESCO-UNICEF publications maintain that inclusion of internal migrants is necessary for a sustainable development based on cultural diversity, social cohesion and human rights. The publications resulted from the National Workshop on Internal Migration and Human Development in India and the Internal Migration in India Initiative (IMII) launched in 2011. The Internal Migration in India Initiative is now an informal network of 200 researchers, NGO’s, policy makers, UN agencies and key partners, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), UN Women and UN-HABITAT, determined to raise the profile of internal migration in India and to propose policy changes and creative practices for a better inclusion of internal migrants in the economic, social, political and cultural life of the country.

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ContactMs. Marina Faetanini, Programme Specialist, Social and Human Sciences, UNESCO New Delhi 

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