Refugee policies in Brazil, Uganda, Turkey offer lessons for India, but realities of influx, political contexts cannot be ignored

In the first part of this series, we analysed refugee policy in three countries that, like India, have also not signed the RC51 (and its1967 Protocol) – Bangladesh, Lebanon, and Jordan. In this part, we will explore the refugee policy regimes of key countries in the Global South that have – Brazil, Turkey, and Uganda.

Rohini Mitra and Aditya Srinivasan March 09, 2020 21:19:06 IST
Refugee policies in Brazil, Uganda, Turkey offer lessons for India, but realities of influx, political contexts cannot be ignored
  • Turkey, Uganda and Brazil are all bound by their commitments under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Unlike India, they can be held accountable under international standards

  • In many ways, the Turkish and Ugandan policies illustrate the indicative nature of the Convention and its protocol, in both cases, policies have been framed prioritising local needs, aspirations and economic realities

  • India can look to emulate these approaches by examining refugee integration in the long term while modifying its response based on in the number of arrivals

Editor's Note: Within the larger framework of the raging Citizenship Amendment Act debate, what best practices in terms of refugee policy can we turn to? This series compares India to other ethnically diverse countries of the Global South experiencing refugee influx. Part 1 features countries, like India, that have also not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocols (Bangladesh, Lebanon, and Jordan), and Part 2 features countries that have (Brazil, Uganda, and Turkey). The 1951 RC and its 1967 Protocol constitute the key international guiding framework defining who a refugee is and what rights and protections are due to them in countries they escape to. The principle of non-refoulement enshrined in this framework mandates that no country can send a refugee back to a place where they are in danger of persecution and this has, since, become a part of customary international law, applicable even to those that have not signed the 1951/67 agreements. This is part 2. 

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As reported in Part I, India's refugee policy, although not legally bound by the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, has maintained a comparable standard operating procedure. This includes special schemes for the Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees and a magnanimous acceptance of refugee groups such as the Rohingya and Chin, Afghans of varied religious affiliations, Somali, South Sudanese, and Congolese. The standard operating procedure has been to allow refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to live in India unhampered.

Since 2012, possession of an UNHCR card also entitles refugees to apply for Long Term Visas (LTV/Stay Visa) from the Indian government. This LTV allows refugees to work in the private sector and is granted on a renewable basis. However, since then, questions have been raised about whether, in practice, they are renewed for different groups (leaders in the Rohingya community, for example, claim that theirs have not been renewed since 2017). In a 2015 UNHCR-Ara Trust Report, the authors lauded the move but speculated about the level of control retained by the state given its non-permanent nature.

Refugee policies in Brazil Uganda Turkey offer lessons for India but realities of influx political contexts cannot be ignored

In the first part of this series, we analysed refugee policy in three countries that, like India, have also not signed the RC51 (and its1967 Protocol) – Bangladesh, Lebanon, and Jordan. In this part, we will explore the refugee policy regimes of key countries in the Global South that have – Brazil, Turkey, and Uganda.

Brazil

In December 2019, Brazil was lauded for its acceptance of Venezuelan refugees on a prima facie basis, fast-tracking their asylum applications. "This move constitutes a milestone in refugee protection in the region," said a UNHCR spokesperson in 2019. However, President Jair Bolsonaro, who is known for problematic statements about refugees, recently also pulled out of the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration.

Over the years, Brazil has increasingly emerged as a prominent country of resettlement for refugees. This began in the post Second World War era, when Brazil signed agreements with the International Refugee Organisation for the resettlement of European refugees, particularly from Eastern Europe. The country also signed the 1951 Refugee Convention (but ratified it much later) and the 1967 Protocol (in 1972). Today, the country is host to 11,327 refugees and 152,690 asylum seekers, accounting for a mere 0.08 percent of the total population (not including recent Venezuelan refugees whose numbers are estimated to be around 39,771).

A law enacted in 1980 (No. 6815 or the Foreigner’s Statute) enshrined political asylum into Brazilian immigration law and various groups such as the Cubans, Bolivians, and Vietnamese were recognised. In 1984, Brazil was a part of the Cartagena Declaration, a regional level non-binding instrument on refugee protection. The Declaration has been praised as one of the most ground-breaking of its time, coming as it did from countries of the Global South, expanding the definition of a refugee to account for factors such as generalised violence, disruption of public order, and emphasising burden sharing and regional solidarity.

Refugee policies in Brazil Uganda Turkey offer lessons for India but realities of influx political contexts cannot be ignored

Article 4 of Brazil’s 1988 Federal Constitution included the granting of political asylum as one of the guiding principles of Brazil's international relations. This was followed up with the National Programme on Human Rights in 1996, which included refugee rights in its ambit and the Refugee Law (No. 9,474) of 1997. The first of its kind in South America, Brazil’s 1997 Refugee Law amalgamated aspects of RC51 and the Cartagena Declaration to make for a broad, inclusive definition.

It also set out a procedure for determining refugee status (taking over the UNHCR’s role) and set up a National Committee for Refugees (CONORE) chaired by the Ministry of Justice to process asylum claims. It was progressive for several reasons – it extended refugee status to family members, allowed asylum seekers to work during the application process, and institutionalised the involvement (with voting rights) of civil society groups working with refugee communities. The UNHCR was also given a place at the table, but without voting rights.

Subsequently, Brazil also instituted a Solidarity Resettlement Program to help resettle refugees from countries of first asylum and participated actively in post — Cartagena discussions. This led to agreements such as the Mexico Plan of Action to Strengthen the International Protection of Refugees in Latin America and the 2010 Brasilia Declaration on the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons. In 2005, a fast-track resettlement process was initiated with a timeline of 3-7 days for refugee application processing and resettlement in Brazil. In 2002, Brazil welcomed 23 Afghan refugees and in 2007 resettled 117 Palestinian refugees from Jordan. In 2012, Brazil instituted ‘humanitarian visas’ for victims of the Haiti earthquake, and later extended them to Syrian refugees as well. In the last two years, the country’s exemplary handling of Venezuelan refugees has earned praise around the world.

Uganda

Uganda's refugee policy is widely acknowledged to be a model of safe and sustainable refugee protection and integration. The UNHCR enumerates nearly 1.4 million refugees in the country, with the majority of the arrivals from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Uganda recognises refugees based on internationally accepted guidelines, but additionally makes provisions within its own law to protect and assist refugees.

The 2006 Refugee Act offers comprehensive benefits to refugees in Uganda, including the right to fair and equal treatment, access to employment and the right to engage in commerce and access the national justice system. The Act also guarantees access to education on par with that provided to Ugandans, which indicates the government’s commitment to helping refugees integrate smoothly in the long term.

The 2010 Refugee Regulations explicitly make provisions for the sensitisation of host communities. Moreover, it makes refugees a key stakeholder in the creation of sustainable development models and environmental legislation. The allotment of land to carry out agriculture and commercial activities in designated areas is a progressive measure designed to ensure refugees can earn more and ensure food security for themselves. As of 2019, one Ugandan refugee camp, Bidibidi, which is also the second largest refugee settlement in the world, is well on its way to becoming a permanent city.

Building on these laws, the Ugandan government and the UNHCR have outlined refugee policy under the 2019-2020 Country Refugee Response Plan (RRP). The Plan sets out a structure for South Sudanese, Congolese and Burundian refugees (the three largest refugee groups), committing to shift the response paradigm from ‘care and maintenance’ to ‘inclusion and self- reliance'. Significant attention is paid to the vulnerability of refugees in terms of food security, access to healthcare, durable shelter and education. The Ugandan refugee response plan essentially views refugees as valuable assets to the country’s development if provided adequate rights and opportunities. South Sudanese and Congolese refugees are recognised on a prima facie basis, while other asylum seekers go through a Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process conducted by the Refugee Eligibility Community, a governmental body.

Despite the creation of separate standards for different communities, Uganda’s refugee policy is inherently oriented towards welcoming and integrating refugees of all origins, with no refoulement cases reported through 2018. Uganda’s GDP per capita lags behind India’s by $1,367, pointing towards significant constraints on resources even for the development of the local population. Nonetheless, Uganda’s refugee policy is generous even by internationally accepted standards, buttressed by a strong push towards integrating the host and guest communities.

The Ugandan framework's comprehensiveness opens the door to competition, conflict and the depletion of shared resources. Tensions between host communities and refugees are not uncommon, and a study found that it is increasingly difficult for the government to provide services in a targeted manner. Nonetheless, the government’s integrationist policy, focused on refugee welfare and sustainable development, is a model of non- discrimination, openness and foresight.

Turkey

Unlike Brazil and Uganda, Turkey’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis has been far from model — despite that, the country is still currently hosting 4 million refugees and asylum seekers (4.8 percent of its population). That makes Turkey the country with the highest number of refugees worldwide. According to 2019 data from the UNHCR, 3.6 million of those refugees are Syrian. In fact, negotiation over Turkey’s rehabilitation policy has also formed a part of the country’s ongoing bid to join the European Union. As part of a 2016 agreement, Turkey was to stem the flow of refugees into Europe, in exchange for €6 billion from the European Union to manage the crisis. The deal was criticised as an outsourcing of the EU’s protection responsibilities and was mired in subsequent controversies over a lack of payment.

Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 Convention and its Protocol with its adherence to the Convention enshrined in Article 90 of the Turkish Constitution as well. However, it carries a geographical condition which limits refugees identified under this mandate to ones from Europe – Syrians, therefore, are only eligible for temporary protection and must find long-term solutions elsewhere. In 2013, Turkey enacted the Law on Foreigners and International Protection, which was the country’s first asylum legislation. Before that, in September 2011, Turkey had declared temporary protection for Syrian nationals and stateless persons, allowing them entry into the country, protection from deportation, and access to services and assistance. The 2013 Law explicitly embraced non-refoulement and restricted administrative detention of asylum seekers. However, under the Law, resettlement to a third country was mentioned as the only durable solution for non-European refugees. Turkey also set up the Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM) to regulate the crisis better.

Turkey is a key partner in the UNHCR and UNDP's Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP), an international rehabilitation plan bringing together over 200 partners and channelling over $14 billion in funding. As of 2018, under the 3RP, 127,456 children had received protection services, 1.35 million had been enrolled in school, 460,074 households had received cash assistance, and 133,340 had been assisted in accessing employment. However, conditions are far from ideal — a 2019 survey of Syrian refugees by the Turkish Red Crescent and the World Food Program found that unemployment was a problem — as was working without a permit in informal, insecure conditions. Over 64 percent of urban Syrian households also lived close to poverty and the initial welcome is slowly fading as numbers increase and Turkish citizens feel the pinch of the 2018 slowdown.

Refugee policies in Brazil Uganda Turkey offer lessons for India but realities of influx political contexts cannot be ignored

Finding Common Ground

Turkey, Uganda and Brazil are all bound by their commitments under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Unlike India, they can be held accountable under international standards.

Nonetheless, as the Ugandan refugee policy shows, it is possible to go above and beyond those commitments and identify an integration framework specific to individual terrain and legislation. Despite being a low-income country significantly poorer than India, Uganda’s commitment to sustainable refugee integration is predicated on long-term gains — an educated, diverse population, an equal society and the future growth of its national economy.

On the other hand, being party to the 1951 Convention does not necessarily result in exemplary policy. Turkey has had to balance its commitments with the reality of its proximity to Syria and the Middle East, its negotiations with the EU, local anti-refugee sentiment and on-the-ground response to swelling numbers.

In many ways, the Turkish and Ugandan policies illustrate the indicative nature of the Convention and its protocol — in both cases, policies have been framed prioritising local needs, aspirations and economic realities. The Convention provides a framework for refugee management which must be balanced with influx, realpolitik and changing political contexts.

Brazil is comparable to India in economic terms and (unlike Uganda and Turkey) also hosts a miniscule number of refugees as a percentage of population. Often hailed as a world leader in refugee rehabilitation, the country has effectively capitalised on the international goodwill emergent from helping all vulnerable groups, regardless of origin. It remains to be seen whether the country’s efficient response to the crisis across the border in Venezuela can adapt to sporadic influx patterns.

The Brazilian and Ugandan cases also illustrate the positive impacts of countries creating adaptive local frameworks. India can look to emulate these approaches by examining refugee integration in the long term while modifying its response based on in the number of arrivals. At a broader level, it can, like Brazil, look to tackle refugee crises at their source by playing a role in contributing to the peace and stability of its neighbours.

The authors are migration policy researchers at India Migration Now, a Mumbai based migration data and research organisation. IMN is a venture of the South East Migration Foundation. Follow their work at @nowmigration.

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