During the recent visit of the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, India and Italy signed a Declaration of Intent on Migration and Mobility (DoI) to strengthen the cooperation in the field of migration and mobility and to facilitate pathways for regular migration, fair working conditions and to combat irregular migration in accordance with domestic laws of the two signatories.[i] A similar Declaration of Intent on Migration and Mobility was signed with Cyprus and Austria during the Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar’s visit to these countries in December 2022-Janauary 2023.[ii] There has been a surge in the number of MMPAs/DOIs signed by India with destination countries in the last few years. 17 LMAs/MMPAs/DoIs have been signed by India between January 2015 to March 2023[iii] while 5 agreements had been signed between 1985 till 2014.[iv] These developments necessitate a deep dive into the nature of agreements and understand the nature of mobility they facilitate. Further, it is also important to read this focus on concluding migration and mobility agreements in conjunction with the broader trends of international migration debate.
Mapping the Landscape-LMAs/MMPAs and LoIs/DoIs
There are various categories of agreements that are being signed by India on migration and mobility. The first category is of the Labour Manpower Agreements (LMA). These agreements have been signed primarily with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries[v] and Jordan to facilitate the entry and presence of Indian manpower in these economies. The first such agreement was signed with the State of Qatar in 1985. This was followed with similar such agreements with Kuwait (2007), Oman (2008), Bahrain (2009), Saudi Arabia (2016), Jordan (2018) and UAE (2018). The 6 GCC countries together account for the presence of more than 9 million Indians. The oil and construction boom in these economies opened opportunities that led to a steady flow of Indian workers to these countries culminating in a large presence of Indian community in the GCC. Hence, it is a natural corollary that the first Manpower agreement that laid down the conditions for work and recruitment of Indian workers was signed with a GCC country, i.e Qatar in 1985.
However, overtime changes have come about not only in the nature of demand for labour in GCC but also in the talent pool available with India and the varied nature of mobility that is now needed to be addressed. 65% of Indians are under 35 years old and are in the working age group.[vi]A broad spectrum of movement that involves movement of workers, students, professionals, researchers, business visits cannot be catered to by Labour Manpower Agreements. A wider ambit is needed, and this brings us to the next category of agreements signed by India, i.e the Migration and Mobility Partnership Agreement (MMPAs).
MMPAs are comprehensive in nature and cover a vast spectrum of mobility ranging from short stay visas, mobility of students, researchers, professionals for economic reasons, and preventing and combating irregular migration and trafficking in human beings. India has signed these comprehensive MMPAs with France (2018), UK (2021) and Germany (2022). A key feature that differentiates MMPAs from LMAs is that while MMPAs are reciprocal in nature and cover bilateral mobility of citizens of both parties, LMAs are channeled towards one-way mobility. Further, a separate chapter on cooperation on returns and readmission is also built in MMPAs unlike the LMAs.
Another variant of migration agreement are a mix of LMAs and MMPAs and are aimed at facilitating the movement of Indian emigrant workers across skill categories for employment to foreign countries. The agreement with Japan on Specified Skilled Workers and with Portugal on the Recruitment of Indian workers fall under this category of hybrid agreements. These are relatively specialized agreements. They do not have component of foreign nationals visiting India like MMPAs but at the same time are more detailed in scope and build on LMAs with inclusion of provisions for training and testing, family reunification, social security and equivalence with hosts state nationals. For instance, the Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) with Japan caters to only the modalities of sending workers from India under a specific scheme of the Government of Japan to attract foreign workers, known as the Specified Skilled Workers Program. The agreement lays down the modalities of information sharing, cooperation in exams and tests that qualify an individual to enter Japan under the scheme, modalities of review and dispute resolution. Hence it is an agreement covering very specific objectives. Similarly, the agreement with Portugal lays down details of recruitment of Indian workers in Portugal under the framework of the agreement and lays down its implementation mechanism.[vii]
Apart from these various types of agreements, India is also signing Letter of Intent (LoI)/Declaration of Intent (DoI) with key destination countries which lay out the commitment of both the parties to commence or fast-track negotiations on Migration and Mobility. 9 LoI/DoI have been signed till date primarily with countries in Europe such as Denmark, Finland, Italy, Portugal, Cyprus, Greece, Germany Austria and with Australia. These are countries with which either the negotiations for MMPAs are ongoing or will begin post the signature of DoIs. In the case of Portugal and Germany, DoIs have been followed by signing of agreements. The primary driver being the mutual recognition of the benefits of safe, orderly and legal migration and eliminating the perils emanating from irregular migration. These DoIs can be understood as a first step towards concluding a migration and mobility agreement though it is not necessary that in all cases the agreement should be precluded by a DoI.
The foregoing section highlights how India is signing different variants of migration agreements that cater to the needs of the destination economies as well as Indian emigrant workers. Two aspects are worth noting in this development. First, there is a realization among policy makers that this is an opportune moment for India given its demographic dividend, technical knowhow, skilled youth, and a strong desire to explore opportunities abroad for Indian workers through safe and regular channels. Complementing this desire on the Indian side is the need for labour in many of these destination economies due to shrinking labour force. Japan, UK, Portugal etc. are all experiencing labour shortages. In countries like Japan and Portugal the need has been triggered due to ageing of their population and declining fertility rates while in the case of UK it has been reported that since the last quarter of 2019, UK has lost 408,000 individuals in the working age group who do not wish to return to work.[viii]
Second, these agreements are reflective of the new realities and transformations being witnessed as far as global migration dynamics are concerned. Globalisation, technological transformation, evolved means of communication have ensured that we live in an interconnected world characterized by transnational mobility of workers/professionals. There is a global need for workers who have domain specific knowledge of their field be it plumbing, nursing, driving, research and innovation, IT, or care work. This need for specialized workers is only going to grow further, and this is also reflected in the pace at which negotiations with many countries on migration and mobility have taken place since 2015 by India.
A plethora of opportunities are being opened for Indian emigrant workers as a result of these agreements. The Young Professional Scheme (YPS)between India and the UK as a result of the MMPA between the two countries is a case in point. The YPS allows for young professionals from both countries in the ages 18-30 to work in respective host country (India/UK) for a period of 24 months irrespective of the employment situation in the host country. 3000 Indian and UK Professionals may be admitted by either country under the scheme. The first set of applications under the YPS were being accepted by the UK from 28 February to 2 March 2023 to operationalize this scheme. The MMPA with Germany allows for Indian students to look for employment opportunities, 18 months after the completion of their study. It also allows for the exchange of young professionals to reside and seek employment in Germany if the diploma/degree is recognized by the competent German authority. Similarly, the agreement with Portugal has opened possibility for Blue collar workers to find employment in Portugal.
The way forward now would be to build on the institutional framework established by these migration and mobility agreements, develop a standard operating procedure for operationalizing the agreement post ratification, involve all stakeholders, spread awareness about the opportunities that arise from the agreement for the public, and also to devise a robust mechanism for periodic assessment. This will not only contribute in Indian talent securing gainful employment opportunities abroad, but also advance the objective of the government to promote safe, orderly and legal migration.
*Dr. Surabhi Singh, Senior Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. She heads the Centre for Migration, Mobility and Diaspora Studies.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] Ministry of External Affairs (2023), “India-Italy Joint Statement during the State Visit of the President of the Council of Ministers (Prime Minister) of the Italian Republic to India (March 02-03, 2023),” Accessed on ^ March 2023, URL: https://mea.gov.in/incoming-visit-detail.htm?36318/IndiaItaly+Joint+Statement+during+the+State+Visit+of+the+President+of+the+Council+of+Ministers+Prime+Minister+of+the+Italian+Republic+to+India+March+0203+2023
[ii] Ministry of External Affairs (2023), “Visit of External Affairs Minister to Cyprus and Austria (December 29,2022 – January 03, 2023)”, Press Release, 3 January 2023.
[iii] 17 LMAs/MMPAs/LOI are LMA with Saudi Arabia (2016),LMA with Jordan (2018) , LMA with UAE (2018), MMPA with France (2018) , DoI with Portugal (2020), MoC with Japan (January 2021),MMPA with United Kingdom (May 2021), Agreement with Portugal (September 2021), LoI with Australia and DoI with Greece (March 2022), DoI with Germany (May 2022), DoI with Denmark (May 2022), MMPA with Germany (December 2022) , LoI with Cyprus and Austria (December 2022/January 2023), DoI with Finland (December(2022) and DoI with Italy (March 2023).
[iv] These 5 Agreements Qatar in 1985, Kuwait (2007), Oman (2008), Denmark (2009), and Bahrain (2009).
[v] Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, UAE and Saudi Arabia constitute the Gulf Cooperation and Council.
[vi] Deo Priyanka (2023), “Is India’s rapidly growing youth population a dividend or disaster”, Times of India, Accessed on 8 March, URL: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/is-indias-rapidly-growing-youth-population-a-dividend-or-disaster/articleshow/97545222.cms
[vii] Ministry of External Affairs (2021), “Memorandum of Cooperation Between The Government Of Republic Of India And The Government Of Japan On A Basic Framework For Partnership For Proper Operation Of The System Pertaining To "Specified Skilled Worker", 18 January 2021.
[viii] Reuters (2023), „ Early Retired resist calls for work despite higher living costs”, Accessed on 9 January 2023, URL: https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/britains-early-retired-resist-calls-work-despite-higher-living-costs-2023-03-09/