Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

From the Zero Line: Covid and Citizen Mobility



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5 Minutes

Guest post by Sayantoni Datta. Sayantoni is an independent researcher and social worker She works on intersectional issues of environment and gender justice. She has formerly conducted a research study in zero line villages along the Indo-Bangladesh border, and worked closely on understanding the work of First Responders on cross border trafficking; the journey of survivors after repatriation from India to Bangladesh. These initiatives were followed up with the UNODC releasing a Handbook for First Responders for Nepal, Bangladesh and India. She is a former Fellow of the Indian Institute for Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla.

Borderlands are 'vulnerable spaces’ and emotional sites in India. The border inherited from colonial history, known as the Radcliffe Line, is an arbitrary line that disappears into a swamp of water hyacinth along a river, or paddy fields and sometimes divides an ancestral kitchen in a home into two in parts of Bengal. Over time several adjustments have been made to redefine the international border from the Radcliffe line but problems persist. The India Bangladesh international border has a peculiar characteristic, known as the ‘zero-line village’; these villages lie on the border between two polities, and between the fences and the boundary line creating many border management problems.

Focusing on ‘zero-line’ villages shifts our attention to ‘borderlands’ and communities, rather than merely focusing on a territorial demarcation of a line that maintains security interests. This nontraditional security approach to borders has become particularly important as issues like cross-border human trafficking, smuggling and drug trafficking incidents have increased.

Over the southern districts of West Bengal, nearly 60 zero-line villages can be located. The most striking characteristics of these villages are the restrictions and interruptions to normal mobility with tightened border controls. The border is a transitional space and needs a reconciliation between the polarised arguments on the right to mobility, security and crime control. This was further pronounced during the pandemic as mobility restrictions were enforced across the country.

In southern West Bengal, a team of co researchers and I conducted research in zero-line villages in 2017 to assess governmental strategies to curb trafficking. Cooperative partnerships were initiated during the research between Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) and the Border Security Forces (BSF) in India. Here conversations with state agencies on both sides of the border helped us understand that in a landscape where the communities on both sides have such close cultural and familial affinities, there is a constant flow of population across the borders. ’Irregular entries’ of children, women, farmers may take place and sensitive procedures towards repatriation may be sought where victim centric approaches are needed to avoid situations where victims end up languishing in shelter homes for long periods in a foreign country.

The crimes related to cross-border trafficking were seldom being identified in the past. All those irregularly crossing the border were in most cases registered under the Foreigner’s Act for ‘illegal crossing’. Identifying trafficking cases by border security agencies and the police required an understanding of cross border mobility and victim vulnerabilities. During the research we found that proactive steps had been taken by both countries to address cross border trafficking by sensitising First Responders at the border, who included border force personnel, police at border police stations, local NGOs and community leaders. These trainings helped shift law enforcement’s understanding of vulnerabilities, mobility, victimisation, and crime at zero-line villages and improved the identification of trafficking cases at the border, while they affected the practice of charging victims for ‘illegal crossing’ and repatriating them on humanitarian grounds. They also focused on improved community partnerships in villages at the border. This initiative has been gaining more support, however more operational training is required so that security and police agencies are able to follow the suggested procedures in the UNODC Handbook for First Responders across the border. This also needs to be diversified geographically and communicated to all officials involved.

The part of the research that explored the situation in villages in Bangladesh showed that a) where community networks with India are strong and prior migration has taken place, education on the risks of unsafe migration, laws on migration and information rights for those who want to migrate for work and the need to register marriages, particularly for women, is needed; b) migration is expensive as most people depend on smugglers to take them across the border. A study found that at least 884 USD is spent by a person on touts; c) in most cases unsafe migration can be attributed to economic pressures, to recover debts and through fake marriages; d) Bangladesh is deeply impacted by climate change and safe migration opportunities need to be established for those displaced by natural disasters.

There have been policy shifts on migration, mobility and citizenship in India since our work at the border. Most of this has been haunted by similar colonial histories as the ‘zero line’, and raked questions on migrations, movements and our perspectives on the border.

A key moment was in 2015, when the Land Boundary Agreement signed in 1974 with Bangladesh was settled. However for those living in ‘Chit spaces’ (enclaves) the citizenship project is yet to be completed. In the north east a fear of loss of citizenship due to the inability to show legal documents festered after the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was implemented in Assam (a federal state in north east India) from 2013 onwards. The NRC found its roots in an ethnic demand to protect Assam’s cultural identity. Assam ‘s old problems with respect to ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ restricted the rights of migrants. The NRC aims at maintaining a list of documented citizens so that ‘illegal’ migrants may be identified and deported back. Though the  demands for such a list in Assam was made several decades ago, its current implementation after years of intergenerational migration flows led to a deep humanitarian crisis in the region. The Citizenship Amendment Act came close on the heels of the NRC, to give citizenship to those from selected faiths who had migrated across the border due to religious conflict in specified time periods. This was met with strong public protests in the country as it gave an impression of exclusion rather than secular inclusion.

The COVID pandemic, a global crisis, gripped India, at the peak of the storm of protests questioning the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). India reeled into a public health emergency and a lockdown was announced on 24th March 2020 after a ‘public curfew’, restricted the movement of its 1.3 billion population. Transportation networks were stopped, stark media images of migrant workers walking for miles to reach their home, resembled those thousands walking across the border during Partition, 1947. The distinction between those who could afford to stay at home and those who walked, begged the question of whether the border has come home. Government responses to governing ‘messy population flows’ amounted to ‘detention camps’, ‘labour relief camps’, ‘quarantine camps’ for returnee labourers during Covid, and ‘flood relief camps’. The increase in vulnerabilities raises the danger of human trafficking for internal migrants and refugee populations. Amidst these problems, there is a concern about whether the same sensitive approaches towards victims of trafficking by first responders will continue at the border.

Looking at the current situation of vulnerable women and children and how they are coping during the pandemic along the border, in flood prone regions which include zero-line villages, we find many issues that need our attention. During the pandemic, passes for farmers in zero-line villages to work in fields across the border was stopped. Stringent measures were taken on cross border entry as migrants may be ‘COVID carriers’. Those at the zero-line had to protest against the disruption of the supply of essential commodities. Local livelihoods have been affected. Cyclone Amphan flooded the fields of farmers and destroyed homes. Many living in border villages are part of the internal migrant labour force that returned under extreme hardship. Particularly worrying is the increase in numbers of child marriages in these villages post Covid 19, pointing to scarcity of household incomes. Precarious migrations from areas prone to trafficking may be predicted, given the hardships and vulnerabilities being experienced here. Tackling hunger and creating sustainable gender sensitive livelihood opportunities will become important interventions for the future.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Datta, S. (2020). From the Zero Line: Covid and Citizen Mobility. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/12/zero-line-covid [date]

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