Migration is not always benign and contributes to transnational crime due to those profiteering from conflict and human deprivation. This, especially as advanced democracies outsource or renege on their responsibilities to refugees and economic migrants.

The ongoing India-Canada row over the alleged state involvement in the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen and wanted terrorist in India, is part of a larger pattern of conflict and nexus of criminality that is linking South Asia and western countries. Tackling this requires both human and state security approaches; and strengthened international cooperation.

Days after the India-Canada diplomatic spat, the Times of India carried a detailed report on how Canada- and US-based “gangsters and designated terrorists” were relentlessly ordering hits in India. Only months before, Indian rapper Sidhu Moosewala was assassinated at the behest of Satinder Singh “Goldy” Brar, a member of the Lawrence Bishnoi gang, who is currently in the US, after having moved to Canada in 2017.  The gruesome rap sheet of such men is much longer.

Gangsterism is not the only form of crime connecting India and the North American countries. There is also drug trafficking, money laundering, human trafficking and human smuggling. Earlier in May, the UK’s National Crime Authority (NCA) arrested 16 men of Punjabi origin on charges of ‘organised immigration crime’ and laundering money earned through the sale of Class A drugs. Evidently, the problem underlying the current crisis between India and Canada is much larger and connects various forms of crime and wider geographies.

Immediately after India’s reproval of Canada’s allegations, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Ali Sabry made a public statement in support of India. This was driven by Colombo’s decades long experience with civil war. Just like the Sikhs, the Sri Lankan Tamils have also been a successful diaspora in western countries. Yet, a minority are engaged ‘in an attempt to revive the LTTE’, says scholar Rohan Gunaratna. The larger migration-induced challenge connecting Sri Lanka with the West does not arise from the Tamil issue alone, nor from merely the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2022 economic crash. There is a link between the growth of the illicit economy promoting human smuggling and the growth of terrorist organisations as protection rackets. The numbers of routes have increased over land, air, and sea.

Recall the painful incident in April when a video went viral on social media showing a Sikh man stripped and caned as he cried out in pain on the US-Mexico border. The BBC reported that in 2022, ‘a record 16,290 Indian citizens’ were arrested as they tried to enter the US through the “donkey route” – a term for illegal crossing of borders. Such cases of South Asians embarking on risky migration voyages are mounting.

The intricate connection between conflict and commerce in much of South Asia has facilitated mass migration and criminality. The exodus of Rohingyas from Myanmar following a military crackdown in 2017 has led to numerous seaborne exoduses which have met with tragic ends. While August witnessed the death of 17 people, the overall death count stands at 350, according to Human Rights Watch. The current wave of migration is not from Myanmar alone, but from neighbouring host countries like Bangladesh. Refugee camps are being exploited as recruiting grounds by militant groups such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), and Munna Gang. Criminal elements are also being resettled in third countries along with more deserving refugees, threatening to relocate the conflict and its consequences abroad.

Similarly, Pakistan’s politico-economic challenges this year have caused mass migration in search of better living standards. In June, one such attempt saw the capsizing of a boat in the seas near Greece and the death of 209 people. Two months later, six deaths resulted from an unseaworthy boat carrying Afghan migrants in the English Channel. The economic meltdown and rise in conflict in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region can be partly attributed to the US’s withdrawal and the region’s historical involvement in narco-terrorism.

How does one tackle such a labyrinthine problem? Scholars worth their salt would not succumb to temptations of one size fits all solutions. Laws alone do not suffice. In India, although Punjab is the only state with a Prevention of Human Smuggling Act, the state’s capacity to tackle fake travel agencies remains limited. Stricter border security in recipient countries, like Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders which “turns back” unlawful maritime arrivals, have failed to deter departures from South Asia. The complexity of the problem demands a combination of human and state security approaches, with local and global efforts.

An example is the Child Protection Compact (CPC) partnership between the US and Nepal, which includes a financial component as well as a multiyear comprehensive plan to improve the Government of Nepal’s capacity to investigate and prosecute child trafficking. Its human security approach addresses root causes for child sex trafficking and child labour. Similarly, the EU funded Integrated Border Management (IBM) Silk Routes project builds capacity against human trafficking and smuggling in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, highlighting the importance of ‘education in preventing irregular migration and border-related crimes’.

According to the Global Initiative, the twin challenges leading to maritime people smuggling are violence and corruption. The latter is an important sustaining factor that determines the scale of the problem. For instance, in war torn Afghanistan, a Taliban guard makes $800 a month by simply smuggling 150 people per week into neighbouring Iran. A 2012 study financed by the EU had noted that agents who forged passports had previously worked as visa officers in Canadian and French embassies. In Pakistan, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) admitted that in 2019 that 30 of its officials were involved in a human smuggling ring that worked with corrupt officials in Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and actors based in Europe.

In May, prosecutors in Nepal charged 30 individuals for forging documents and passing off clients as Bhutanese refugees for resettlement in the US. The most scathing aspect of this scam was the involvement of former ministers, namely Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand and Energy Minister Tope Bahadur Rayamajhi. Underscoring the importance of corruption in determining the scale of the problem, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime noted in January 2023 that fewer perpetrators were being convicted even though victims from the region were identified in 32 destination countries.

South Asian countries are plagued by instability and poor governance, which accounts for the exploitation of lax border controls by criminal and terrorist groups. Building capacity in law enforcement and legal mechanisms must be further cemented by state level official dialogues and intelligence sharing between regional and western agencies to monitor criminal and terrorist cells within the migrant population and evolve a mutual appreciation of emerging threats.

The Canadian reluctance to act on Indian dossiers on criminals reflects myopic electoral considerations that threaten the national security of both countries. Indian investigations have revealed connections between cartels within diasporas based in North America, Europe, Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Against such a backdrop, regional and global cooperation to tackle the threat is the need of the hour.

Contributed by       

Dr Dheeraj Paramesha Chaya

He is a Lecturer in Intelligence and International Security at the University of Hull. This article has been syndicated from PoliTweak, which reimagines democratic peace and sustainable wellbeing in South Asia.