Every year 20 June is celebrated as World Refugee Day in order to highlight the plight of all the refugees in the world. In order to commemorate this day, I am dedicating this week’s post to the cause of refugees.
According to Euripides, “There is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one’s native land”. This is often the case of a refugee. A refugee’ is defined as “a person who has fled his country owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable or, owing to fear, is unwilling to avail himself the protection of that country.” This definition is according to Article 7 of the 1951 Convention and Protocol relating to the status of refugees. However, India being home to about 3,30,000 refugees, considers them as “aliens”. India, despite completing 60 glorious years of Independence, does not have any special laws for the protection of these refugees. India deals with refugees under the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939 and Foreigners Act, 1946 which is applicable to aliens.
However, the Government of India is empowered to regulate the entry, presence and departure of these aliens. In India, wage earning rights and work permits have no meaning for refugees. Hence, they have no way of supporting themselves and thus remain in poverty. When they just enter India, they are taken to a transit camp. There the necessities are not easily available. Over a period of time, they muster courage to move freely within the country and hence they do not have to live in transit camps.
People flee from their mother countries due to civil conflicts, massive violations of human rights, foreign aggression and occupation, poverty, famine, disease and natural calamities. Reasons such as famine, disease and natural calamities are just passing phases. After this, they return to their own countries whereas the other reasons are long standing anxieties that may or may not be solved.
The Sikhs and Hindus migrated from Pakistan to India and the Muslims migrated from India to Pakistan during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. India and Pakistan readily accepted and rehabilitated these migrants. People of Indian origin were forced to leave Burma (now Myanmar) under the programme of Burmanization. During Bhutanization, the people of Nepali origin were pushed to India and Nepal. Sri Lanka upon becoming independent sent the Tamil plantation workers who were taken to the island by the British back to India. Bihari Muslims were sent to India during the liberation war of Bangladesh though they wanted to enter Pakistan. India continues to host and assist refugee population from different countries especially Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Tibet. Thus, India is diverse of refugee population.
Refugees undergo many trials and tribulations. There is arbitrary arrest of newly arrived young men on suspicion of rebel connection. Sometimes, they are even deported for security reasons. The host country does not welcome them willingly and hence they do not develop a sense of belonging towards the host country. When the refugees flee and seek asylum into another country, they come empty handed leaving behind their belongings. They have to start their life in the host country right from scratch. They are not granted refugee status or given citizenship easily as they are considered liabilities to the country. They are often targeted and accused in case of thefts or terrorist attacks. They are subjected to assaults, both physical and mental. Since they come empty handed, they do not have documentary evidence of their educational qualifications, income, proof of residence and so on. Sometimes even if they have documentary evidence, it is seized upon arrival in the host country. They are often denied accommodation, health facilities, education, protection and the like. Sometimes, they are separated from their families. Though they want to go back to their country, they have no option but to stay at the host country hoping that their own country will become safe one day. Sometimes, the country builds high walls to shut out refugees and asylum seekers. This insensitive gesture is not justified. The Sri Lankan refugees in India face problems of a different genre. They are firstly labeled as terrorists as people consider them as members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ellam (LTTE). A large number of them happen to be Dalits. They are forced to flee because of their caste, only because they are Dalits. They face the problem of apartheid.
Any person seeking refugee status has to approach the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). In spite of not being a member of the 145 – nation signed 1951 Geneva Convention, India has allowed the UNHCR to function in India through its offices in Delhi and Chennai. Many refugees have spent years waiting for resettlement but end up becoming a burden to the government. They are pleading with the Indian Government to grant them protection and refugee status.
The lack of legal provisions and policies on refugees is one of fundamental flaws of protection in India. At the same time, India cannot be blamed for this because many people take advantage of the hospitable nature of the Indian Government. They flee for better prospects and to enhance their quality of life. This is not forced migration but migration out of choice. Thus, the Government is very careful in granting refugee status.
I feel that safeguarding the refugees is the responsibility of the international community. It is high time India becomes a part of the UNHCR Convention of 1951. India should also consider amending its Foreigners Act, 1946 and differentiate between a “refugee” and a “foreigner”. We should realize that refugees are not born refugees; they are made refugees. Hence, we should not ostracize them. This will be possible only through awareness in refugee issues that will sensitize the people to give the refugees a hassle – free stay in India.