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The new Migration and Mobility Partnership (MMP) is now in place between India and the UK since 4 May 2021. It is critical to address the issue of illegal immigration between the countries. However, New Delhi must do so with a human-centric approach, keeping outward migration safe while economically integrating the returned migrants.

BY Divya Balan


This article is the first in a two-part series.

The attempted detention of two Indians, Sumit Sahdev and Lakhbir Singh, on May 14, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland, by British immigration enforcement officials set off street protests and a heated debate on the UK Home Office’s policy of unilaterally expelling irregular migrants from the country[1]. The incident took place soon after the 4 May 2021 signing of the India-UK memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the Migration and Mobility Partnership (MMP) which stipulates “cooperation relating to the prevention and combatting of illegal migration”[2].

The agreement signed, by Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and British Home Secretary Priti Patel, in London was part of the efforts to elevate India-UK bilateral ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (MEA 2021)[3]. Even though much focus has been on materialising a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and an Enhanced Trade Partnership (ETP), the MMP is an invigorating attempt to include migration and mobility as one of the critical integrants of the partnership and the proposed ‘Road Map 2030’ to revitalise bilateral engagements in the key areas of mutual interest.

The presence of irregular Indians in the UK is a long-standing irritant in the bilateral. The lack of current and credible data of irregular Indian immigrants in Britain has complicated the issue, leading to over/underestimations by policymakers and media on both sides. The British government claims a total of over 100,000 irregular Indians in the UK, those who have either entered illegally or became irregular after reaching the UK by overstaying their visas. The Government of India says the number is a fraction of that claimed by the UK – just 2,000[4]. This data discrepancy is a major bottleneck to implement the provisions in the current MoU, as unreliable statistics can impair mutual trust and complicate building the necessary infrastructure for plan execution.

From an Indian perspective, the MoU on mobility partnership approaches the matter of illegal migration from the context of return and readmission of Indian nationals who are unlawfully residing in UK territory. The legal provisions and administrative procedures that both countries need to comply with while working on return arrangements are dealt with in detail, along with timelines for closing each case. The MoU attempts to promote the voluntary return of Indian irregulars from the UK. However, forced repatriation on a case-by-case basis is also a recourse if they refuse to return voluntarily or decline to cooperate with the nationality verification process. A Joint Working Group has been established “to evaluate the implementation of the provisions outlined in the MoU”[5].

This is not the first time India and the UK have attempted to cooperate on illegal migration from India. In 2018, a similar MoU on the return of irregular Indians was discussed between both countries. However, India refused to sign it, citing disagreement with the UK authorities’ proposal to use DNA tests to establish the nationality of the suspected Indian irregular migrants who do not have identification documents. The timespan deliberated, for the repatriation related background verification by Indian authorities was also a point of dissent – 72 days for suspected Indian irregulars without documents and 15 days for those with documents[6].

India has similar arrangements with other European countries, including the bilateral between India and Switzerland in 2016[7] and the EU-India Common Agenda on Migration and Mobility (CAMM)[8].

The current MoU between India and the UK is not so different from the 2018 document, and the critical gaps in policy intent and implementation setting persist, including the continuing data hole and executive tardiness. The efficacy of the MMP now depends largely on how much the policy deliberations and instruments are based on the ground realities of the India-UK migration track. The inclination of the UK government to liberalise its visa policy, making it conducive to all sections of job seekers from India, is also a critical factor in combating illegal migration.

The MoU, however, does not address the root causes of illegal migration, instead focussing solely on the repatriation and readmission of irregular Indian nationals. This is evident from the reports that the UK’s Indian community viewed the Glasgow incident as a targeted act facilitated by the new MMP deal binding India to take back irregular Indians in the UK[9].

The indisputable fact is that many Indians choose to illegally migrate to the UK regardless of the costs and risks involved, for two reasons. First, economic difficulties and fewer opportunities at home and inspiration from the success stories of those who have migrated, impel them to undertake desperate measures. Second, the demand for flexible and cheap labour in the informal sectors of the British economy continue, sustaining the illegal migration stream from India. Notwithstanding regulatory efforts, illicit recruiting and travel agencies in India exploit this situation and aid the illegal channels and criminal networks that smuggle migrants.

It leads to human and labour rights violations of such irregular migrants in the UK as they operate in the shadow economy, outside the welfare and public services schemes. Their non-representation in official records and estimates obscure their wellbeing and protection, as they go undetected in normal situations and unintended circumstances, as we have seen during the current COVID-19 pandemic. The IOM – International Organization for Migration’s data related to the pandemic revealed that the irregular migrants and their families were hesitant to access healthcare services due to fear of deportation or family separation (Migration Data Portal, 2021)[10].

Finally, the provisions on legal migration in the MoU are premised on enhanced trade cooperation between India and the UK in the post-Brexit scenario, which is expected to generate greater employment opportunities for Indians in Britain. However, it mentions only “the legal and orderly movement of Indian students, young professionals and skilled workers” as per the new Points-Based Immigration System of the UK. There is no provision for the low-skilled strata which makes up the illegal migrant group from India. Hence, contrary to what was projected in the Indian media, the annual quota of 3,000 employment visas to Indian professionals between the ages of 18 to 30 under the Young Professionals Scheme is not going to resolve the issue of illegal migration from India to the UK.

Addressing the issue of illegal immigration is critical, but it is also time to have a human-centric approach of including provisions for reparations and transnational justice to these irregulars in the otherwise technical dialogues and the possibilities of regularising their status by relocating them to labour deficit sectors of the destination economy.

Correspondingly, India must address the post-return economic reintegration measures for those repatriated – not easy, given the restless and un/underemployed young population of India. To combat illegal migration in the future, Indian states like Punjab and Haryana with a high propensity of illegal migration to the UK. must create more employment opportunities at home and keep a strict check on the fraudulent travel agencies and human resources consultancies operating from these states. In addition, government must take steps to upskill the prospective migrants to meet the specific visa requirements of the destination countries and match the sectoral-wise workforce demand in the destinations with the analogous skill supply in India, so that they can migrate through legal corridors. More optimistic will be for the Indian government to promptly devise a formal system for data collection and sharing among the destination countries to keep track of cross border mobility and ensure safe and orderly migration.

Divya Balan is Associate Professor of International Studies, FLAME University.

This article was published under the aegis of The Gateway House-FLAME Policy Lab at FLAME University, Pune.

© Copyright 2021 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.


[1] Scully, Emer (2021). “Migrant charity threatens legal action against Home Office after officials arrested and tried to deport two Indian asylum seekers in Glasgow,” Mail Online, Saturday, 15 May 2021, URL: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9581827/Charity-threatens-legal-action-against-Home-Office-officials-tried-deport-asylum-seekers.html

[2] The UK Home Office (2021). “Policy Paper: MoU on the migration and mobility partnership between India and the United Kingdom,” URL: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/migration-and-mobility-partnership/mou-on-migration-and-mobility-partnership-between-india-and-the-united-kingdom

[3] MEA (2021). “India-UK Virtual Summit”, Ministry of External Affairs, URL: https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/33839/INDIAUK_VIRTUAL_SUMMIT

[4] Singh, Vijaita (2018). “India rejects U.K.’s DNA test plan for finding illegal migrants’ nationality”, The Hindu, 14 August 2018, URL: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-rejects-uk-proposal-on-dna-tests-for-illegal-migrants/article24682854.ece

[5] The UK Home Office (2021). “Policy Paper: MoU on the migration and mobility partnership between India and the United Kingdom,” URL: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/migration-and-mobility-partnership/mou-on-migration-and-mobility-partnership-between-india-and-the-united-kingdom

[6] Singh, Vijaita (2018). “India rejects U.K.’s DNA test plan for finding illegal migrants’ nationality”, The Hindu, 14 August 2018, URL: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-rejects-uk-proposal-on-dna-tests-for-illegal-migrants/article24682854.ece

[7] PMO (2016). “Cabinet approves Bilateral Technical Arrangement between India and Switzerland on the identification and return of Swiss and Indian Nationals”, Prime Minister’s Office – PMINDIA, URL: https://www.pmindia.gov.in/en/news_updates/cabinet-approves-bilateral-technical-arrangement-between-india-and-switzerland-on-the-identification-and-return-of-swiss-and-indian-nationals/

[8] MEA (2016). “India-EU joint statement on the 13th India-EU Summit”, Ministry of External Affairs, URL: https://mea.gov.in/Images/attach/Migration_and_Mobility_between_India_and_the_European_Union.pdf

[9] Dathan, Matt (2021). “Home Office takes hard line over Glasgow deportations,” The Times, Thursday, 20 May 2021, URL: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/home-office-takes-hard-line-over-glasgow-deportations-3vkdnrvkc

[10] Migration Data Portal (2021). “Migration data relevant for the COVID-19 pandemic”, URL: https://migrationdataportal.org/themes/migration-data-relevant-covid-19-pandemic