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Migration in India - Tamanna Phukan


Migration has been a dynamic aspect of human evolution since the beginning of human life. Prior to the advent of civilization, people used to migrate mostly for reasons of survival – food, and shelter. However, with the coming up of civilized societies, the nature and causes of mobility changed. By this time, people had started to migrate not just to fulfill their basic needs but also for better livelihood and opportunities. As trade and businesses prospered, new cities emerged where people from different social and cultural backgrounds interacted with each other, which in turn developed a diverse cosmopolitan culture.

In a large and developing country like India, the study of the movement of the population becomes significant as it helps us to understand and analyze the dynamics of society better. “The Census of India defines migration by place of birth or residence; if a person was born at a place other than the place of enumeration, then he is treated as a migrant.[1]The data on migration in India as per Census of 2011 shows that the total number of migrants has been 45.36 crores as compared to 31.45 crores in 2001”.[2]

The Indian society primarily witnesses two major types of migration – a) Long term migration which results in the permanent settlement of the individual/family in the destination country, and b) Short term migration which involves a person temporarily moving to the destination country. Migration can also be classified as internal (within the country) or external (across international borders). Based on these two broader heads, various sub-types of migration exist in the context of the Indian territory.

While the causes and consequences of human migration may differ, the social impact is felt directly on the migrant. As people develop an emotional attachment to the place where they were born or have resided for long durations, it often causes them mental and emotional distress while traveling and settling in a different place due to a lack of togetherness and neighborhood solidarity.


  1. Economic Migrants – These are the people who leave their home/country to go and work in a different country/place. People who earn their livelihood by indulging in some economic activity and are belonging to the occupation/professional category can be called economic migrants, motivated by economic incentives to migrate from place to place.
  2. Family Migrants – The economic migrants who travel under prospects of incentives and earning also have motives of family reunification depending on the laws of the host country. Laws for family reunion are not universal in nature and vary from country to country, with some being more liberal whereas others being less-tolerant.
  3. Political Migrants – It refers to those persons who migrate with an underlying economic motive, but due to reasons of fear of persecution in their home country. Frequent political, religious, or ethnic turbulences have led to some people leaving their homelands and seeking asylum elsewhere.
  4. Educational Migrants – Students who move to different countries for the purpose of higher studies fall under this category. Universities in developed nations who recruit international students lay much emphasis on marketing as the majority of the international students are full fee-paying students.
  5. Illegal Migrants – People under this category are either those legal migrants who had become illegal due to overstaying in the destination country or illegal migrants who have infiltrated the boundaries voluntarily. It may also refer to those kinds of people who are forced through trafficking.[3]


The pandemics of the past like Influenza (1918) or Smallpox (1974) were not concerned with migration on a large scale such as the Coronavirus pandemic. The spread and subsequent contamination of the virus from its epicenter in Wuhan, China is believed to have been due to the mobility and migration of people to different parts of the world. In a globalized world where economies are inter-dependent on each other, nation-wide lockdowns can lead to an unprecedented breakdown of the economy and social system.[4] As the entire economy came to a standstill, the migrants became the most vulnerable population who lost their livelihood overnight. This caused a huge influx of migrants back to their native homes driven by a lack of food, shelter, wages, and fear of infection and anxiety. Many had to walk thousands of miles to their homes due to the unavailability of transport, and many lost their lives due to hunger and hardships or had committed suicide.


Covid-19 had a huge and devastating impact on all sections of society. However, the people who are not citizens of a country, namely the immigrants and refugees, face extreme hardships both in developing and developed countries due to inadequate sanitation or an over-burdened health care system. These sections of the population are often left out from the realm of epidemic/disease preparations and health-care. In most of the middle-eastern countries like Syria and Iraq, the public health-care systems are not well-established due to reasons of continuous war and violence, which further aggravates the problem of containing the spread of epidemics and diseases.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is a UN Agency that has warned that an outbreak of the coronavirus in a country like Libya could be “truly catastrophic” for the internally displaced people as well as the migrants and the refugees.[5]The lack of information on the spread of the virus, coupled with inadequate and unsanitary health-care systems, and overcrowded quarantine centers posed additional challenges during the Covid outbreak.


  1. Immigration Laws in India

The Constitution of India provides for “single citizenship” for the entire country. The provisions relating to citizenship can be found in Articles 5 to 11 under Part-II of the Constitution of India.[6]

  • The Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950– This act enabled the Central Government to oust certain outsiders from the territory of Assam. “In the event that the Central Government is of assessment that any individual or class of people, having been conventionally occupant in any spot outside India, has or have, regardless of whether previously or after the beginning of this Act, come into Assam and that the stay of such individual or class of people in Assam is unfavorable to the interests of the overall population of India or of any part thereof or of any Schedule Tribe in Assam, the Central Government may by request
  1. direct such individual or class of people to eliminate himself or themselves from India or Assam inside such time and by such course as might be indicated in the request
  2. and give such further bearings concerning his or their expulsion from India or Assam as it might think about vital or convenient.”[7]
  • The Immigration (Carriers’ Liability) Act, 2000This act was sanctioned remembering the issues of an enormous number of people traveling without substantial travel documents by the “carriers” in violation of the Passport Act, 1920. “Where the equipped authority is of the sentiment that any carrier has negated the arrangements of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and rules made thereunder into India, he may by order award a punishment of rupees one lakh on such carrier subject to the arrangement that no order will be passed without giving the carrier a chance of being heard in the issue.”[8]
  1. Legal Framework for Illegal Migrants

The Indian nation does not consider illegal migrants as refugees. By virtue of not being a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951, the principles of “nonrefoulement” and “impediment to expulsion” is not applicable in India.

  • Foreigner’s Act 1946 – Under this, the Government of India has the power to not only defining a foreigner as a non-citizen of India but also allows it to prohibit, regulate, or restrict the entry of foreigners into the Indian Territory.                      
  • Foreigner Tribunals Order – This tribunal has the authority to deal with cases relating to persons falling under the ambit of the Foreigner’s Act of 1946. It has similar powers to those of a civil court in India.[9]
  1. Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979-The Act was authorized to “forestall the abuse of inter-state migrants by contractors, and to ensure fair and decent conditions of employment and requires all establishments hiring inter-state migrants to be registered, and contractors who recruit such workmen be licensed making the Contractors obligated to provide details of all workmen to the relevant authority.”[10]


The act revises the Citizenship Act by adding an arrangement in Section 2(1)(b) that “any individual coming from Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan won’t be treated as an unlawful immigrant under the Act, subject to three conditions: (a) he/she entered India at the latest December 31, 2014, (b) is excluded by the Central Government under Section 3(2)(b) of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, and (c) is absolved from the provisions of Foreigners Act, 1946.”[11] Also, it amended clause (d) of the Third Schedule by “loosening the time-frame for naturalization from atleast 11 out of 14 years to at least 5 out of 14 years of dwelling in India, or being in service of the Government, for any individual belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian people group from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan.”[12] These corrections caused incredible fights all through the nation and abroad, on grounds of being violative of “equivalent security of law” and unfair in nature.


The Indian society has witnessed large scale migration during partition when thousands of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs left their ancestral homes and crossed borders to travel and settle in a completely new and different environment. Since then, thousands of people migrate each year for reasons varying from education to trade to livelihood and better opportunities. As the dynamics of the world, and more specifically the Indian subcontinent are changing, it becomes vital for us to analyze and understand the socio-legal aspects of migration in India. Migrants all over the world are marginalized due to a lack of identity and citizenship, and hence there arises a need to have a comprehensive legal framework to uphold the rights of these migrants urgently.[13] Over the past few decades, these migrants have been pushed into the darkest corners of the society with precarious living and working conditions, the most evident example being the Government’s disregard for them during the times of the Covid pandemic. Overall, although there exist certain laws for the protection of migrant rights in India, providing basic necessities and social-welfare coverage, and bringing in a legal framework to arm their rights is the need of the hour to uphold and enshrine the principles of equality and justice to all.

Author(s) Name: Tamanna Phukan (Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad)


[1]Dr. Anju Bala, Migration in India: Causes and consequences, 2 International Journal of Advanced Educational Research, p54 (Jul. 2017)

[2]Samarth Bansal, 45.36 crore Indians are internal migrants, The Hindu (Dec. 2, 2016)

[3]Binod Khadria, Perveen Kumar, Shantanu Sarkar, & Rashmi Sharma, International Migration Policy:

Issues and Perspectives for India, 1 Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies

School of Social Sciences,

[4] R.B. Bhagat, Reshmi R.S., Harihar Sahoo, Archana K. Roy, & Dipti Govil, The COVID-19, Migration, and Livelihood in India, International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai (Apr. 14, 2020)

[5] United Nations, International Organization for Migration, Conflict and the COVID-19 Pandemic Present a Significant Threat to Life in Libya, 13 May 2020,

[6]TulikaChakraborty, ImmigrationLaws in India, Legal Service India,

[7]Tulika Chakraborty, Immigration Laws in India, Legal Service India,

[8]The Immigration (carriers Liability) Act, 2000, India Code,,thereunder%20and%20matters%20connected%20therewith.

[9]Legal Framework for Illegal Migrants in India, Manifest IAS (13 Aug 2020),

[10]K P Krishnan, Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, must be rationalized to remove requirements that disincentivize formalization, Indian Express (May 9, 2020),

[11]Gautam Bhatia, Migration – Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy (Dec. 26, 2019),

[12]Gautam Bhatia, Migration – Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy (Dec. 26, 2019),

[13]Sourya Majumder, Why a comprehensive legal framework to protect migrants’ rights are urgently needed, Caravan Magazine (May 3, 2020),