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Devesh Kapur: Europe's India aversion

The author explains why very few Indians migrate to the European Union

Devesh Kapur 

Devesh Kapur

Over the last half century, an increasing number of Indians have gone overseas to work or study or join their families. Many of them have settled in these countries and they (and their descendents) form part of the Indian diaspora. A striking characteristic of Indian migration to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries is its concentration in Anglo-Saxon countries, with the US, UK, Canada and Australia having the largest numbers of people born in India. Indeed, of the countries where Indians rank among the top 15 of the foreign born, only two - Italy and Finland - are in Europe. Italy is the only European country with a sizeable Indian-born population.

While language and a common colonial heritage are certainly an important reason for this concentration, there is little doubt that policy choices by the European Union are an important factor. Many Western European elites - whether in its universities, legislatures or media - live in a cognitive universe where European hegemony was simply a fact of life. India is still exoticised and patronised and a lurking racism is undoubtedly more marked than in North America. Recently, journalist Chinki Sinha wrote of her account at being stranded at Frankfurt airport while in transit - a horror story which neither the airline (Lufthansa) nor the airport authorities deigned to take responsibility for.

Many European elites are simply in a state of denial, barely cognisant that the world has moved on. If one wants to travel to the US from India the procedures are onerous and time consuming. But once one crosses that threshold, a five-year visa is quite common. The system imposes a high fixed cost but low marginal cost. Europe issues Schengen visas with the carefulness of Mr Bumble serving gruel to the orphans in Oliver Twist. One might think that apprehensions of overstaying can be addressed by giving a short visa the first time and increasing the length of the visa in each successive trip. Surely by the tenth time there should be some Bayesian updating of priors. But no, that would be logical. Instead the genius of the Schengen visa is that it imposes high costs. For everyone. Period.

The sheer illogic cannot be happenstance. It's a deliberate choice of how Europe views India - and Indians. Indeed it seems it is easier to get into Europe seeking asylum than on a legitimate visit with three of the top five countries where Indians seek asylum located in Europe.

The data for Indians seeking asylum in the EU region does not reveal any major trends over the decade, averaging between three and four thousand annually. It appears that the majority of these applications are rejected. There are several inter-related questions. Who are the people who apply for asylum? Here it appears that many of the applicants are simply illegal immigrants attempting to find a way to make a better life for themselves. Who are the people being granted asylum? Are the grounds for granting asylum justified on religious and ethnic persecution or discrimination against sexual minorities, HIV patients, interfaith marriages so some other reason? And what happens to those whose applications are rejected? These are important questions but there is no comprehensive analysis that would shed light on this.

The more normal channels of migration, however, face multiple barriers, whether the flow of Indian students or technology workers into the EU. There are innumerable stories of successful Indian migrants to the US (and other Anglo-Saxon) countries of migration, whether in academia and research or business and entrepreneurship, which have contributed significantly to the destination country. In each case the education and incomes of migrant of Indian origin are above the national average. In Western Europe on the other hand, the pickings are much more modest.

A few years ago, I was invited to speak at a German government-sponsored conference in that country. The visa requirements included my having to provide a financial guarantee that if I died during my visit my body would be shipped back to the United States. I thought it was ridiculous â and the visa officer in New York thought it was even more ridiculous that I should contemplate the thought of visiting her fatherland. I should have realised that it is easier to get into Europe seeking asylum than a conference sponsored by her government. And the topic of the conference? International migration.

There is little doubt Western European policies towards Indians have been an important factor for the lukewarm relations between Europe and India. As India seeks to build commercial and security relationships around the world, doing so with the EU seems self-evident. But that is unlikely to pass anytime soon. Europe's decline is at least in part the result of its elites adopting an ostrich-like head-in-the-sand approach, declining to face up to the reality of changes sweeping the globe. It is a lesson that Indian elites - intellectual and political - need to ponder very carefully. Else, they will have to face the same realities that Europe will have to face. Meanwhile, they should travel elsewhere - and to the East in particular.

Devesh Kapur is director, Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania

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First Published: Sun, April 13 2014. 22:50 IST