World Refugee Day: India needs to formulate national framework for just and uniform treatment of refugees

Each year, 20 June is celebrated as World Refugee Day across the globe. It is a day dedicated to raising awareness about the precarious condition of refugees around the world who have been forced to leave their homes due to war, persecution and conflict. In light of this, let’s take a look at the refugee situation in our own country and reflect on what we can do better.

According to a UNHCR report in 2017, India is host to 2,00,000 refugees. These refugees hail from a myriad of countries like Myanmar, Afghanistan, Somalia, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Palestine and Burma, to name a few. Therefore, it can be noted that India has been a safe haven for people across the region. The UNHCR even commended India on its handling of the refugee crisis, saying that it is a model for other countries to emulate.

However, India is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention. This seems strange, especially since India is host to so many refugees. There are several factors that dictate this decision and this article will examine a few of them.

 World Refugee Day: India needs to formulate national framework for just and uniform treatment of refugees

Representational image. Reuters

When the Convention was first proposed to the members of the UN after the end of the Second World War, India saw it as another cold war strategy. India’s stance was described by Rajeev Dhavan in an article in The Hindu: “―It (Convention) was seen as Euro-centric and, essentially, anti-Communist. Indeed, in 1953, India’s Foreign Office (through RK Nehru) told the office of the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that the global refugee policy was essentially part of the Cold War. It took years for the Convention of 1951 to be amended by the Protocol of 1967.”

Post-Independence India was trying to stay neutral and hence did not sign the Convention at the time. Although there are no official reasons for India’s abstinence from the law, one of the possible reasons could be the definition of the word ‘refugee’ in the Convention. It constricts the causes that lead to people becoming refugees to violations of social and political rights or persecution on the basis of race, religion and nationality.

This definition is considered ‘Euro-centric’ because it fails to consider violence or poverty as major causes. The Indian representative at a meeting of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that “most of the refugee movements are directly related to widespread abject poverty and deprivation around the globe...particularly in the developing world such as most of South Asia."

Thus, the Convention fails to take into account the conditions of developing countries. On the same note, by signing onto the Convention, India will be taking on responsibilities that it does not have the capability to carry out. The Convention guarantees refugees the right to housing and work. In a country like India, which already struggles with overpopulation and a highly permeable border, a large unchecked influx of ‘refugees’ can have devastating effects on infrastructure, the labour market and national security.

The country’s resources are already spread thin as it struggles to provide for a population of 1.2 billion people. Since the country’s borders are extremely porous, the incoming ‘refugees’ could lower wages and strain already scarce resources. The threat to national security has also been cited as a major worry when it comes to refugee populations. Authorities claim that the refugee influx also leads to an increased threat of infiltration by terrorists and criminals.

Furthermore, in smaller states like the northeastern states of Tripura, Meghalaya and Assam, a large influx of refugees will cause the natives to become minorities in their own state. These are some of the reasons that have led to India’s hesitation in signing the 1951 Refugee Convention.

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A consequence of India being neither a signatory of this Convention nor having a national policy in place dedicated to the treatment of refugees means that it is forced to use an ad hoc approach to deal with different refugee groups. In most cases, the Foreigner’s Act and the Citizenship Act are used to deal with refugees. It defines anyone of non-Indian nationality as a ‘foreigner’ regardless of legal status. This makes no distinction between migrants and refugees. This puts the refugees in a very precarious situation because legally, they are not recognised as refugees in the country and this could prohibit their access to the proper documentation needed to survive in the host country.

Under the Acts, it is a criminal offence to be without valid travel or residence documents. These provisions render refugees liable to deportation and detention. It also results in varying treatment of different refugee groups. For example, some are granted residence permits, giving them access to formal employment and legal residence, whereas others are deemed a ‘security threat’ and are denied access to basic resources or even sent back to their home country. This difference is highlighted in the treatment of the Tibetan refugees versus that of the Rohingya Muslim refugees.

In conclusion, although India has been a gracious host when accepting refugees on the whole, it needs to formalise its outlook and treatment of them. If acceding to the Convention is too big a burden at this stage of India’s life, it must at least come up with a national framework that is suited to its restrictions and capabilities. This will ensure the just and uniform treatment of all the refugee groups and lift India’s standing in the global community.

Updated Date: Jun 20, 2019 13:31:11 IST