BJP MP Babubhai Katara's attempt to smuggle a woman and teenager to Canada, is yet to be treated as a grave offence in India. Human smuggling and its evil twin, human trafficking are the offspring of an illegal cash-for-human cargo business. Born out of a desperation that leads some to risk all for a one-way ticket to El Dorado, they criminally commodify a basic human desire: to seek a better life.
The trade in humans is a serious violation of rights and thrives on those who are most susceptible to abuse, especially women and children. Whereas human smuggling is a simple trade-off between a willing 'client' and his 'carrier', those who are trafficked often get trapped in a cycle of abuse, exploitation and debt bondage. Brian Iselin, a legal expert on human trafficking at the UNODC says in a 2002 paper that what distinguishes human trafficking from smuggling is "the extent to which people lose control over their own situation" and "are stripped of their capacity for self-determination."
The tightening of national legal barriers against immigration has pushed up the risks for victims and ensured bloated profits for traffickers. Yet most countries are unwilling to tackle the menace head on, and it is often lost in the legal maze of immigration control. American University professor John Willoughby says in a 2005 paper that countries even covertly encourage migration to cultivate surplus labour reserves that facilitate control of labour, its bargaining power and mobility, creating a modern form of indentured servitude.
According to the International Organisation for Migration, India is among the top three migrant-sending countries and a rich hunting ground for traffickers. Yet there is no law that deals directly with human trafficking under the Indian Penal Code or the Code for Criminal Procedure, and the maximum punishment for travelling on a fake passport is a mere 1-5 years, with a paltry fine of Rs 10,000. In Canada, Katara's planned destination, people smuggling is an offence that carries the maximum fine of one million dollars and life in jail.
International labour migration is set to increase with the opening up of trade in services, making cooperation between sending and receiving countries vital. India's requests for easing of visa regimes have been met by counter-proposals from the EU and Russia for "re-admission agreements". With an increase in the illegal movement of economic migrants, the asylum system has also come under severe stress, and destination countries' refusal to accept illegal migrants, often leaves the victims stranded in a legal no man's land, where the human tragedy is often overlooked.