Inter-state migrant workers waiting for their morning commute at Perumbavoor in Ernakulam district Image Credit: @CMID/Savanan

Migration is currently at the centre of political discourses across the world and anti-migration sentiments have rocked several countries in Europe and elsewhere.

Even the South Indian state of Kerala has gone into a tizzy over its migrants. Despite the fact that Keralites form one of the biggest diasporas in the Gulf countries, back home the local population resents the presence of migrant workers. “The government should do something to stop them. They [migrants] cannot just come here and destroy everything,” says Mani, a carpenter in Perumbavoor. He is afraid that the migrants are stealing jobs and driving wages down.

Kumari, a housewife, says migrants are a nuisance. “I am afraid to step out in the evenings because of these workers in my neighbourhood. I do not trust them,” says the mother of two.

Recently, Kerala’s celebrated poet and social activist Sugathakumari said migrant labourers would prove to be a “cultural disaster” for the state. In an editorial in the Malayalam newspaper “Mathrubhumi”, she raised the alarm over the “uneducated criminals who will marry and settle in Kerala”.

Triggering anti-migrant sentiments further was the recent indictment of inter-state workers in some ghastly crimes in the state. For instance, the rape and murder of law student Jisha in Perumbavoor in April by migrant worker Ameer-ul-Islam from Assam sent shockwaves in the community. In what is suspected as a backlash, another migrant worker Kailas Jyothy Behra was lynched. Triggering virulent hatred towards migrants was another brutal crime — the brutal triple murder of an elderly couple and their son in Kottayam district in May, allegedly by another worker from Uttar Pradesh.

According to the estimates of the State Home Department, a total of 1,770 cases involving migrants have been reported across Kerala since May 2011. In Ernakulam alone, 660 cases were reported, followed by Malappuram with 240 cases and Kozhikode with 132 cases. A senior police officer in charge of Ernakulam rural district — the hub of migrant workers in Kerala — says the area is witnessing a spurt in crime. “There are at least eight or 10 cases involving ATM theft, bank robbery and murder. We are on the lookout for suspects who are migrant workers. Criminal gangs are operating under the shadow of migration and they are the main culprits in the sale of banned tobacco products and drugs.”

But liberals and social activists are calling out on the prejudice of lumping all migrants as criminals. They are advocating to bring the migrants from the margins into the mainstream of society. Prasanth Nair, Kozhikode district collector and a social media icon, says the resentment is symptomatic of the inherent psychosis that the society carries with it. “We are migrant labourers elsewhere. We have settled in Delhi and Mumbai, but say nobody else should live and work in Kerala,” he says.

According to him, in many cases, the state is depriving migrants of their rights. “There is not a single Malayali labourer in the construction sector. But the construction welfare board fund membership is entirely of Malayalis. When a Bengali workers falls from a construction site and dies, he gets nothing. So who is a criminal here?” he asks.