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  India's refugee policy  
  Groping in the dark  
   
  INDIA has no official policy on refugees and yet asylum seekers from its troubled neighbors keep pouring in, looking at its size, stability and soft power. So how does the absence of guidelines for refugee protection play out in the treatment of asylum seekers in India?

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) World Refugee Survey estimates that India has at least 456,000 refugees in the country. The actual number could be much higher. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has recognized only 185,323 of them.

Although UNHCR has its office in India, which sits on its Executive Committee in Geneva, the country has neither signed its Refugee Convention nor ratified its 1967 Protocol. India does not even have a national legislation to govern refugee protection. Worse, it has a blanket law, the Foreigners Act of 1946, to govern the entry, stay, and exit of all foreigners. The Act gives the Government of India the discretion to expel foreigners. What's more, according to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2003, all non-citizens without visas are illegal migrants.

However, the Supreme Court of India ruled in 1996 (in National Human Rights Commission vs. State of Arunachal Pradesh) that the right to life and personal liberty as enshrined in the country's constitution protects refugees from forced repatriation. And since India has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948; the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, 1966; the International Convention on Economic, and Social and Cultural Rights, 1966, among other international conventions, it is expected to protect refugees.

But apart from generally upholding the principle of non-refoulement, New Delhi does not feel obligated to look after the refugees. Not that it leaves them in the lurch, but the lack of accountability paves the way for it to deal with the refugees or asylum seekers in a discriminatory and inequitable manner to suit its foreign policy interests at a given time.

In other words, the treatment of refugees conversely depends on New Delhi's relations with their country of origin. This de facto policy is noticeable in the way India has handled its three largest refugee populations.

According to the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC), India has at least 120,000 refugees from Sri Lanka, over 110,000 from Tibet, and around 100,000 from Burma.
"India has a mixed record on refugees," said SAHRDC executive director Ravi Nair.

Sri Lankan Refugees

Nair added that there was a "marked shift" in the treatment of Sri Lankan refugees in the recent years and that India was presently "less than welcoming of them." New Delhi has been encouraging Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, currently in south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, to return to their country, it has stepped up the interdiction on the high seas and it is sending back refugees for the last few years because of "what it perceives as its security and foreign policy interests," he explained.

Nair was mainly referring to India's competition with China's influence in Sri Lanka, given that both Asian giants are eyeing preeminence in the Indian Ocean and Asia. From 2006 to mid-2009, when Sri Lankan security forces claimed victory over the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Colombo was accused of allowing a human rights crisis in the country's north and east. A barometer of that crisis for international non-governmental organizations was the influx of Tamil refugees into India. And to woo Colombo, New Delhi seemingly helped it by bringing in a "marked shift" in its treatment of refugees from Sri Lanka.

In the 1980s, the Tamil refugees were treated better, given that New Delhi allegedly supported the LTTE's formation in 1976. According to a report by a private Indian news channel, CNN-IBN, many Tamil Tigers were trained by the Indian Army. However, the relations between India and the Tigers soured at the time of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated by the former in 1991. And New Delhi inched closer to Colombo.

"Clearly, New Delhi has neither hindsight nor foresight when it deals with Sri Lanka," said Nair, who also said that while India had been generous with Tibetan refugees, it had not been so accommodating with those from Burma, officially known as Myanmar.

Tibetan Refugees

India has been charitable with Tibetan refugees thanks to New Delhi's troubled relations with China and the fact that their presence gives India leverage in negotiations with its tough neighbor.
New Delhi allowed refuge to the Dalai Lama, who favors autonomy for Tibet under Chinese rule, in 1959 and permitted him to set up a government-in-exile in Dharamsala in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh though it did not officially recognize it as a government. When over 80,000 Tibetans followed their spiritual leader they were not only granted resident permits but also employment opportunities. Today, there are around 110,000 Tibetan refugees in India, according to SAHRDC.

However, the Tibetans who came to India in more recent years have not been received well. The reason is simple. While India advocated Tibetan independence for decades, it reportedly accepted China's claim on Tibet between 2003 and 2006, apparently in exchange for China's acceptance of Sikkim as part of India. This became evident when India and China agreed to reopen the Nathu La pass, which connects India's Sikkim state with Tibet, on July 6, 2006 -- the birthday of the Dalai Lama. The pass had been sealed after the 1962 Sino-Indian War.

That the reopening of Nathu La was little more than a symbol of the Sino-Indian deal became clear to me after my recent visit to Sikkim's capital Gangtok. Most locals I met shared the opinion that it had made no difference in their lives.

Burmese Refugees

The fact that refugees from Burma are unwelcomed in India also reflects New Delhi's strategic interests in that country.

Historically, Burma and India had close ties, as both countries were under the British rule and had religious and cultural links. However, after the Burmese junta's crackdown on the democracy movement in 1988, the Indian government under Rajiv Gandhi supported Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained leader of Burma's opposition party who went to school in New Delhi. But in the mid 1990s, India apparently changed its Burma policy thanks to its strategic and economic interests in that country, which, like Sri Lanka, is the battleground of New Delhi and Beijing for primacy.

SAHRDC estimates that around 100,000 ethnic Chins from Burma live along the border in India's Mizoram state, and around 2,000 in Delhi. Only 1,000 Chins have been recognized by UNHCR, but as far as Indian authorities are concerned, there are no Chin refugees.

I recently met officials in Mizoram's home ministry in state capital Aizawl who surprisingly said there were no Chin refugees in the state. They maintained that most Chins who have crossed the border were in Delhi and the few who were living in Mizoram had come for employment. However, the USCRI World Refugee Survey found that ethnic Chins from Myanmar "lived under the most restricted conditions" in Mizoram "with a few hundred in New Delhi," as it said in its latest report.

Benedict Rogers, East Asia team leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide in London, said, "Thousands of people from Burma, including Chins, have fled to India for safety. They are fleeing severe human rights violations, including rape, forced labor, torture and religious persecution, as well as a chronic food shortage. India, as the world's largest democracy, has a responsibility to provide these people with the sanctuary they need."

Speculative Fears

It seems India fears that promised protection to refugees can be a threat to its internal security and result in a much larger influx of asylum seekers.

India's former Chief Justice, P.N. Bhagwati, who was tasked by the government to suggest a model law for refugee protection in 1997, proposed the definition of a refugee keeping in the country's security concerns. According to the model law he drafted, a refugee is any person who is outside his/her country of origin and is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country because of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, sex, ethnic identity, membership of a particular social group or political opinion ... owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination, serious violation of human rights or events seriously disrupting public order in either part or whole of his/her country. But the model law is gathering dust.

New Delhi needs to realize that the ambiguity in its refugee policy has not helped much. In 2003, India's then foreign minister George Fernandes said that there were at least 20 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in the country. Therefore, a law that clearly distinguishes between an asylum seeker and an economic immigrant will benefit India. Besides, an official policy on refugees will lift India's reputation in South Asia and Asia.

One wonders what New Delhi is waiting for. (CourtesY: The Global Politician)
 
  By  Vishal Arora  
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