Mahanirban Calcutta Research group


Deep Dive: Global Protection of Refugees and Migrants (2021)

Concept Note

Deep Dive: Global Protection of Refugees and Migrants (2021)

Concept Note 

Sixth Research and Orientation Programme in Migration and Forced Migration Studies, 2021

1. Introduction:

1.1 In 2020, CRG held its Fifth Annual Research and Orientation Workshop and Conference (“annual workshop”, hereinafter) on migration and forced migration studies. From 2018, the annual workshop has focused on the issue of protection and its ethics-covering, inter alia, the two Global Compacts; national, regional and international instruments; institutional dynamics and the changes there in; fault lines in the global protection map; statelessness.

1.2 The international circulation of the Kolkata Declaration on Protection of Refugees and Migrants (adopted at CRG’s third annual workshop in 2018) evidences that the programme on the challenges facing global protection has drawn wide attention. Refugee and migration “crises” have come to the forefront of international attention amidst rising imperialist interventions, sectarian nationalisms, religious extremism, civil wars, environmental degradation, and neoliberal restructuring of economies in the last three decades. While the churnings in the wake of regime changes in the Arab world, the prolonged civil war in Syria, and the exodus of the Rohingya people have been the biggest contributors of refugee situations in recent years, persistent violence and poverty in several other countries and regions contribute to forced migration. The refugee “crisis” in Europe in 2015 hastened the idea of designing new modes of protection, which led to two Global Compacts being adopted by the United Nations.

1.3 As gross inequality in responsibility-sharing among nation states persists, the deficiencies in the global protection system are starker than ever. Aspects of the present crisis in the strategy of protection - such as increased humanitarian caseloads in cities; increased racialisation of refugees and migrants; the protracted nature of the condition of displacement throughout the world; increasing statelessness; the contrast between the corporate strategy of making refugees and immigrants market- enabled actors and the reality of refugee and immigrant labour as dirt labour in service of a global capitalist economy; the situation of mixed and massive flows-call for a deeper engagement with the issue of protection and the envisioning of policies fundamentally different in orientation. The crisis has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The first response of most countries to the pandemic was to close their borders. As a result, migrants all over the world encountered untold miseries. All displaced communities are fast becoming de facto stateless.

1.4 Since 2015,CRG’s annual workshop has responded to the increased vulnerabilities of forced migrants. From a policy perspective, the previous two annual workshops inquiredwhy the Global Compacts were flawed when viewed from the global South and were successful in addressing several challenges facing the protection framework. When the pandemic arrived, CRG focussed its gaze on the perilous situation of migrants, forced or otherwise. It also brought out through its research the vulnerability of all working migrant population groups. Among the major issues revealed by the pandemic was that of public health. This and other emerging issues will be addressed in the forthcoming annual workshop.

1.5 The annual workshops, particularly the one held in 2020 (, have given CRG enormous lessons in developing interactions and dialogues; building content and pedagogic skill; instilling synergy between different activities, working groups, and institutions. CRG aims to develop the programme on the basis of these lessons.

The Sixth Annual Workshop, 2021:

1.6 1.6.The next annual workshop will partially recast the thematic approach of the programme so that it acquires a more specific character by way of concretely addressing some of the frontier issues in migration and forced migration studies. Six themes have been identified in this respect:

(a) Protection and punishment: race, caste, migration, and policing (this will include issues of screening, deportation, detention and protection);

(b) Access to public provision and distribution of food, public health, and education for refugees and migrant workers including undocumented migrant workers;

(c) Refugees and migrants as political subjects: the phenomenon of solidarities, and alliance building;

(d) Ethics of care and protection (as ideology and an ensemble of practices);

(e) Migration, law, and critical jurisprudence, in which legal anthropology will be an important component;

(f) Envisioning protection in the light of the experiences of 2020.

1.7 The above themes, all of which will be informed by the aspect of gender, will hopefully animate the annual workshop with questions like: What is the impact of the security-centric, harsh anti-immigration policies on protection? How can societies develop solidarity politics and practices across groups and individuals with different identities but a shared interest in protection? What are the experiences of strategies of solidarities with migrants and victims of forced migration in cities? How can stronger coalitions be built within and between cities? How do new forms of governance pose new challenges to non-citizens and solidarity with them- from the criminalisation of migrants and refugees to the enclosure of public spaces and widespread surveillance? What are the characteristics of building coalitions in contexts of resource scarcity and increasing social divisions? How do we reflect on the increasing entwining of the discourses on migration and criminalisation, and the inter-operability of databases and surveillance technologies currently affecting marginalised and racialised urban population groups? What have been the strategies, opportunities, and challenges of working on solidarity issues at local, municipal, regional, national and international levels? Likewise, why do we feel the need to involve doctors, other actors in the field of public health, and policy analysts to deepen the engagement with the issue of migrants’ access to healthcare? What shall we mean by progressive healthcare and public health policies in this respect?

2. Research Agenda for 2021:

2.1 It is important to note that CRG’s annual research agenda took a dramatic turn in 2020 in the wake of the pandemic and the consequent lockdown and migrant crisis throughout South Asia. This alteration has stood CRG well and has laid the foundation to move ahead creatively in its research programme.

2.2 CRG’s research agenda and findings are tied strongly with the annual workshop. We need to further develop synergy between orientation and research, particularly in view of the lessons of the pandemic. In this light, CRG’s research agenda for 2021 will comprise:

(a) Public health, environment, and displaced population groups;

(b) The pandemic, economic governance and restructuring, and migrant labour;

(c) Sanctuary cities;

(d) COVID-19 jurisprudence (laws, judgements, legal commentaries etc., on the issue of protection in the wake of the pandemic);

(e) New methods of studying migration and forced migration which will include new modes of militant research in migration and forced migration studies such as building up a living archive, new modes of mapping, comparing historical experiences of migrants’ treks through select critical moments in South Asia, and making a wider engagement with jurisprudence;

(f) “The Long 2020”: The year 2020 in many senses has compelled us to revisit our theories, concepts and policies, and it is important that we take stock of this. Also, the impact of 2020 requires to be seen in the long term. Therefore, the idea of “Long 2020” will inform the annual workshop and also the specific research agenda.

2.3 An example of “Long 2020” research is the issue of the protection of migrants and refugees in the light of economic governance in the global South. Economic governance concerns both (a) broad macroeconomic policies and postures of the host country and (b) microeconomic considerations of human development among refugees and migrants. In most cases, it is observed that the macroeconomic stance of the host country is reflected in its legal norms and these macroeconomic policies get more emphasis compared to the microeconomic ethics of care for individual refugees and migrants. Unless the legal framework of the host country permits, the issue of refugee and migrant protection does not get much priority in emerging economies of the global South like India. The legal framework of the host country determines if the economic policies of the government will be sympathetic to refugees and migrants; and this depends upon the particular political and economic choices of the state at a particular point in time in its history. In India, the pandemic has raised doubts about the general governmental policy regarding internal migrant workers, who constitute more than 10% of the total population of India. In parliament, the government claimed it had no data regarding the reverse migration of the workers due to the outbreak of pandemic and the associated lockdown. So, the basic question is: What happens to the protection of refugees and migrant workers when the situation warrants specific measures in the light of the economic governance of the country? In this light, it is pertinent to explore the lacunae in economic governance as far as protection of migrants and refugees are concerned and to derive from them both macro and micro-level policy imperatives for the global South. This theme connects with the one on law, and invites inquiry into issues such as the history of the 1979 legislation on inter-state migrant workmen, as also on the ways in which economic reforms are advanced in times of a crisis as the present one. Economic restructuring in this case emerges as part of economic governance, which operates at the macro level at the cost of the micro-level questions of individual well-being, protection, and security of life and livelihood. Such a study facilitates an inquiry into the theme of “Long 2020”.

2.4 Another example is the theme of “migrants and public health”. In his memoir Chandal Jiban, Monoranjan Byapari, the well-known Dalit writer in Bengali, vividly recounts the time when the infant Jiban, a refugee from East Pakistan during its liberation war, and “resettled” in the Dandakaranya camp, suffered from consecutive days of diarrhea. The environs of the camp were alien to his family and other refugees, there was only a single doctor with no medical supplies to look after all the camp inhabitants, and only one water faucet. Jiban survives his week-long ordeal but the relationship between health and migration has been neglected for long in forced migration studies. Migration and public health has been a concern of epidemiologists and public health specialists. But to bring the question of the migrant’s body into the academic field of migration and forced migration studies, both as individuals and as populations, is the need of the hour. The pandemic painted migrants as both the worst sufferers and the greatest villains in common imagination. Refugee camps around the world have been constantly on the brink of epidemic outbreaks, given the cramped, unsanitary conditions in which prevail in them. Also, in the South Asian context, the refugee influx into India has been marked by forcible pathologisation of the refugee's body: from the compulsory inoculation of refugees- in the aftermath of the Partition- as soon as they reached the Sealdah railway station to the urban imagination of the 1971refugee as the carrier of deadly diseases that needed to be contained far away from the urban metropolis. The refugee has always been treated as more than an individual body, yet merely a body. In 2020, the migrant workers walking back to their villages after the sudden imposition of the lockdown found themselves kneeling to be sprayed with pesticides so as to kill the virus. Trains ferrying them were called “Corona Express”, indicating their potential to infect previously untouched, uninfected villages. In this background, this will be a study looking at these three unique points in India's history (symbolically significant because it will be the seventy-fifth year since Partition soon), taking into account governmental and non-governmental measures that sought to simultaneously pathologise and contain the migrant’s body. The study will ask for instance: What sanitary arrangements were made in refugee camps and colonies? What inoculations were carried out, on whom and why? How did government agencies decide upon nutritional requirements and what happened when the migrants took matters in their own hands? Each of these questions is set to unfold yet again, when vaccination against the pandemic becomes available. Will the migrant body be the site upon which it will be tested - just as the indiscriminate distribution of hydroxychloroquin was? Such a research can take into account government and non-governmental records, newspaper reports, existing research, ethnographies of 1947 and 1971 refugees, and contemporary reports on the displaced migrant workers in 2020. In short, such a research will be a perfect instance of the “Long 2020”.

3. Living Archive :

3.1.“Living Archive: COVID-19 and Migrant Workers” (home page and came into existence as CRG began focusing its research programme and collection of material on the “migrant crisis” in India in the wake of the nationwide lockdown imposed in late March. The collected material, which initially was used for producing twowell-known reports- “Borders of an Epidemic” and “Burdens of an Epidemic”- grew steadily with contributions from various sources. The archive now consists of over one hundred select news items, several visual documents, audio-visual deliberations, important resolutions, declarations and manifestoes. Indexed and catalogued to augment its usage, it now forms one of the most important components of CRG’s special resources on migration and forced migration. Its chief feature is its “living nature”- it reflects a living reality, as opposed to an archive of the past. The archive may be complemented by other creative activities like the Law Reader, which is currently under preparation. Producing a map and photography exhibition on the theme of the pandemic and labour will also augment the educational resources.

4. Webinars, Seminars, Public Lectures and Dialogues in Collaborative Format :

4.1 These activities will be strengthened on the basis of the achievements in 2020 ( and These activities, flow into the programme of the annual workshop and strengthen it. In turn, the annual workshop strengthens the possibilities of further collaboration and expansion of the network. Therefore, CRG proposes to continue and strengthen its activities under this segment on the basis of the experiences and achievements of 2020. CRG’s research on the pandemic and migrant labour has influenced and facilitated work under this segment.

4.2 The dangers relating to the spread of the pandemic and constraints emerging from periodic restrictions imposed by national and local governments had put CRG in a situation of unprecedented difficulty. However, CRG took little time in turning this unforeseen crisis into fresh opportunity. While the previously planned direct meetings, seminars, public lectures and dialogues could not be conducted, CRG started planning meetings afresh and organised webinars and online dialogues and lectures on a regular basis from May 2020. A number of relevant themes were innovated for such virtual interactions which, as a result, did not lose their sheen. In this way, CRG could reach a much wider audience in South Asia, including Pakistan (which would have been difficult to achieve in the earlier, direct mode of meeting), Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka (see, for instance, In many cases the audience was global and the discussions became intense. Resource persons were drawn from all these countries who shared their insights and experiences on the issue of protection, which eventually became part of the CRG archive. These insights and experiences were disseminated to a greater number of people through social media networks like Facebook and YouTube. In some cases, pedagogic themes were discussed. Research workshops were held in the virtual mode. Solidarity meetings were also organised in like manner. All these strengthened and expanded the network. The use of the virtual mode as a vital supplement to the pre-pandemic style of work has stood CRG well.

4.3 As the pandemic progressed, CRG sought to highlight the perils faced by millions of migrant workers in India, who were compelled to trek back to their home states amidst the lockdown. Through our webinars, resource persons including academics, media persons, and labour rights and human rights activists indicated how the sudden visibility of this huge and mostly invisible labour force has brought to the fore the inadequacy of the protection mechanisms for migrant workers, who as citizens are entitled to certain basic rights. Similarly, CRG’s webinars highlighted the question of public health in the perspective of the sudden visibility of migrant labour. These virtual discussions also included the issue of the vulnerabilities of the Rohingya refugees sheltered in crammed camps in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Migrant labour became the mirror in which the general precarious situation of refugees and migrants became reflected.

4.4 While keeping its existing networks strong, CRG started collaborating with the University of Gottingen, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of Oldenburg, European Academy of Minority Rights, and several universities and institutions in India towards organising webinars and virtual book discussions. In fact, the pandemic enabled CRG to move beyond the limitations of the strict mandate of the project and create global networks. Such collaboration with old and new partners alike has generated a sense of new solidarity on issues of migration and forced migration in South Asia. In 2021, CRG plans to convert this camaraderie into something more meaningful in addressing the issues of migration. This requires the strengthening of CRG’s digital infrastructure and support for such improvement.

4.5 With its primary focus on South Asia, CRG would attempt to bring in the experiences of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and climate refugees in Bangladesh and Maldives. CRG also intends to probe protection mechanisms in the light of the pandemic. For 2021, CRG aims to ensure that these virtual discussions, dialogues and lectures- likely to play a pivotal role at least in the first half of the year- will inform the varied sub-themes of the annual workshop. CRG proposes to hold at least two such collaborative seminars/webinars, one local dialogue, and one public lecture.

Research Segment

Living Archives

Programmes 2021


Past Programmes 2020

Disseminations / Resources / Important Links

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