Opening up India's borders for refugees isn't a zero sum game, nation can learn from Bangladesh, Jordan, Lebanon

Over the years, despite no national framework, India has followed a relatively generous, though ad-hoc, approach to incoming refugees. Considering this strong historical record, the recent Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) building on the 2015 amendments to the Foreigner Act Rules, appears particularly arbitrary.

Rohini Mitra and Aditya Srinivasan February 18, 2020 18:00:25 IST
Opening up India's borders for refugees isn't a zero sum game, nation can learn from Bangladesh, Jordan, Lebanon

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 will feature 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.


In 2020, the world is home to more refugees than it has ever been before — 25.9 million according to the International Organisation for Migration's (IOM) 2020 World Migration Report. Over half of this number is below the age of 18, according to latest data from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Some of the most affected countries are located in the Global South, exerting strain on their existing physical and governance infrastructure. As these countries attempt to tackle the twin challenges of stable governance and sustainable development, the arrival of large refugee populations presents an enormous policy challenge. India is home to a diverse refugee population comprising Tibetans, Afghans, Pakistanis, Burmese (Chin and Rohingya), Sri Lankans, and Somalis. But with an estimated refugee and asylum-seeking population of almost 2.50,000 (only 0.2 percent of the country's total population), it is far from being the most affected.

Opening up Indias borders for refugees isnt a zero sum game nation can learn from Bangladesh Jordan Lebanon

Over the years, despite no national framework, India has followed a relatively generous, though ad-hoc, approach to incoming refugees. Tibetan refugees in the 1950s, Burmese Chin refugees in the 1990s, the Chakmas in the 1970s, the Bangladeshis during the 1971 war, the Sri Lankan Tamils in the 1980s and most recently, the Rohingya from Myanmar, have all been accommodated under ad-hoc policies and agreements to varying degrees. The UNHCR in India grants refugee cards to these vulnerable populations and through the work of numerous non-governmental organisations and civil society groups, refugee communities can access resources, education, and basic livelihoods. Standalone initiatives such as the Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy of 2014 and schemes for the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees provide further relief. Since 2012, India has also begun issuing Long-Term-Visas (LTVs) to UNHCR recognised refugees and has spoken out in favour of non-refoulement in recent international forums.

Opening up Indias borders for refugees isnt a zero sum game nation can learn from Bangladesh Jordan Lebanon

Considering this strong historical record, the recent Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) building on the 2015 amendments to the Foreigner Act Rules, appears particularly arbitrary. It excludes the Muslim community, citizens of various other neighbouring nations (with refugee crises of their own) and institutes a cut-off date of December 2014. At present, the CAA is the main legislative initiative India offers for refugee populations. How does India's current refugee policy compare to the policies of other countries in the Global South which have not signed the 1951 Convention or its 1967 Protocol?


Starting April 2020, in a landmark move hailed by rights groups across the world, Bangladesh will be piloting a flagship program extending education facilities to over 10,000 Rohingya children living in camps. The aim, according to officials from the UNICEF as well as the Bangladesh Government, is to prevent a 'lost generation of Rohingya children'. For over two decades years now, Bangladesh has borne the financial and logistical brunt of Myanmar's crackdown in Rakhine state, prompting over a million Rohingya people to flee their homes as refugees. The country's refugee policy, however, has varied considerably over time.

Since the 1970s the Rohingya, a Muslim minority ethnic group from Myanmar, have sought refuge in Bangladesh and other countries as a result of state-backed persecution in Myanmar. Their numbers post a much-publicised 2017 crackdown have swelled to over 1 million with the refugees largely settled in camps in and around Bangladesh's Cox's Bazaar. Although this represents a miniscule portion of the country's population (about 0.6 percent of the over 165 million population), Bangladesh's policy has moved from a liberal refugee-welcoming stand to a more refugee-hostile one over time.

Bangladesh witnessed the influx of Rohingya refugees in three waves. The first wave in the 1980s post Operation Dragon King of 1978 numbered about 2,00,000 and at this time, the government arranged temporary shelter and other kinds of support.

In the second phase of the 1990s, about 250,000 fled persecution in Rakhine. Bangladesh granted temporary asylum, food and medical services and called for help from the UNHCR. Around 20 refugee camps were built in Cox's Bazar and Bandarban districts in September 1991 and the country also co-operated with international NGOs such as Red Cross to support the refugees. Diplomatic avenues were explored through the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on April 28, 1992 between the Foreign Ministers of Bangladesh and Myanmar in Dhaka to resolve the crisis.

In the third phase, the government changed their approach. After 1992, Rohingyas were no longer given refugee recognition in Bangladesh; instead they were identified as 'illegal immigrants.' Bangladesh appealed to the UNHCR in February 1992 to assess the Rohingya crisis and communicated its unwillingness to host any more refugees. Between 1993 and 1997, extensive repatriation activities were undertaken. The country forcibly repatriated some 5,000 refugees under the 1992 MoU.

A policy of non-acceptance of those refugees who came back after 15 August, 1997 was also announced. In 2008 and 2009, Bangladesh continued to adopt a policy of informal deportation of Rohingya refugees. Post the 2017 crackdowns, the numbers in Bangladesh have swelled to more than 1 million and the Rohingya crisis has also garnered international attention. Increased international discourse has prompted more progressive initiatives such as the joint education scheme for Rohingya children. However, camp conditions continue to be difficult with freedom of mobility and livelihood severely restricted.


Located in the heart of the Middle East, Jordan has, time and again, has borne the brunt of wars and civil crises in its surrounding countries. Over the years, it has hosted Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, and Palestinian refugees, with Syrians constituting the bulk of the refugee population today. The proportion of refugees in the local population is also extremely high in Jordan — close to 8 percent, far higher than either India or Bangladesh — and growing.

The Census of 2015 reported an 18 percent increase of the non-Jordanian population versus 3.1 percent for the Jordanians, mostly due to increasing refugee influx. Jordan's approach to refugees has been ad-hoc but largely generous. Building on earlier national laws such as the Law on Residence and Foreign Affairs (1978), the country's MoU with the UNHCR in 1998 incorporated some semblance of structure into its refugee policy. This provided a definition of 'refugee' that is close to the 1951 Convention and explicitly committed to the principle of non-refoulement along with legal and protection rights including the right to freedom of religion.

Since then, particularly post the 2011 influx of Syrian refugees, Jordan's tolerance has come under intense scrutiny. Initially, the Syrians were resettled in the way that the Palestinians and Iraqis had been before, mostly with local host families. For a while, the stories of the Syrian refugees served to keep political unrest at bay in Jordan while negative perceptions of them deflected attention from internal problems. Now, that delicate balance is shifting. However, Jordan continues to have one of the most structured responses to the refugee crisis in the Middle East. In 2013, the Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate was established by the government to exclusively handle rehabilitation efforts, followed by a National Resilience Plan in 2014.

In 2017, the Ministry of Planning and International Co-operation in Jordan instituted the Jordan Response Plan for the Syrian Crisis (JRP). This three-year plan, often hailed as one of the most sophisticated responses to the refugee crisis among the Middle Eastern countries, aims at rehabilitating the refugee community while safeguarding Jordan's own stability and development progress. It also receives financial support from international organisations. In 2018, the JRP provided education access to over 130,000 Syrian children, over 200,000 primary healthcare services, and cash assistance programs to over 140,000. However, the picture is not an entirely positive one — for example, in 2018, while Syrians living in towns and cities without permits were regularised, their access to healthcare was restricted.


Lebanon, like Jordan, hosts mostly Syrian refugees — one in 6 people in the country is a refugee — along with Palestinians, Iraqis and refugees of other nationalities. This makes it the country with the highest number of refugees per capita in the world given its own population of approximately 6 million. Despite an initial attempt to welcome Syrian refugees, the pressure exerted on the country's economy, its demographic makeup and the housing market has led to increasingly restrictive policies over the years.

Lebanon's ad-hoc approach was given some structure through its 1999 MoU with the UNHCR — however, this was extensively criticised for leaving out the principle of non-refoulement and restricting itself to asylum seekers who had appealed to the UNHCR within two months of entering the country. In 2015, Lebanon introduced a new policy: it required Syrian refugees in Lebanon to extend their residency either by paying $200 per year or finding the support of a Lebanese local to sponsor them. Lebanese workers earn LBP 418,000 a month on average, or approximately $276-barely above the fee asked of them to renew their residency. Those who find Lebanese sponsors typically face exploitation, especially if they also work for the same individual.

In 2014, the Lebanese Ministry of Labour issued a circular restricting the employment sectors for Syrians to construction, agriculture and cleaning. It also asked employers to maintain a less than 10:1 ratio of Lebanese to foreign workers. Syrian refugees registered by the UNHCR are also prohibited from working in Lebanon as they officially receive humanitarian assistance. They are, thus, typically forced to work in dangerous conditions, without a legal contract and with the threat of harassment or, worse, deportation constantly looming.

Lebanon also maintains a 'no-camp' policy, forcing Syrians to arrange for their own accommodation. While most Syrians reside in cities, many also live in makeshift tents or settlements and some in garages, workshops or other non- housing spaces. In 2017, the Lebanese government waived the $200 fee for Syrian refugees provided they had registered with the UNHCR before 1 January, 2015 or obtained residency through their UNHCR certificate at least once in 2015 or 2016. While the move was welcomed, many Syrians do not possess UNHCR registration cards or indeed their own identification documents. However, the Lebanese government has not closed its border with Syria entirely, indicating that it is open to Syrian arrivals and the recent Lebanon Crisis Response Plan provides much needed structure to rehabilitation efforts.

Opening up Indias borders for refugees isnt a zero sum game nation can learn from Bangladesh Jordan Lebanon

Finding Common Ground

Some key lessons can be derived from these divergent experiences of refugee integration. The impact of international co-operation on this front is crucial and the lessons from the Syrian example are noteworthy. In 2016, through the signing of the Jordan Compact at the London Conference, the country agreed to integrate 200,000 Syrians into its labour market in exchange for preferential access to European Union markets, investment, and soft loans. Lebanon signed a similar Statement of Intent aiming to reduce vulnerable communities' dependence on aid and increase productivity and incomes. International co-operation has thus allowed multiple perspectives and plans to converge on finding rehabilitation solutions in a sustainable manner without overly taxing one host country. Multilateral co-operation between governments for a similar approach to the Rohingya crisis may be an effective alternative to the Bangladeshi and Indian governments' current individual ad-hoc approaches.

The scale of refugee influx in India is much lower than that in Bangladesh, Jordan, and Lebanon. Despite this, the response of the latter governments shows that rehabilitation need not be a zero-sum game where refugees are helped at the cost of locals (although rhetoric of this sort is frequently observed in all these countries). Recent research shows that countries accepting refugees are increasingly starting to reap the benefits. Given the diverse nature of India's refugee communities, there is great potential to not only add to the rich ethnic fabric of the country through integrating the 250,000 currently seeking asylum but also boost economic growth.

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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