Migration and Asylum Project (MAP) has been at the forefront of protecting the rights of refugees living in India. In a candid interview Roshni Shanker, Executive Director of (MAP) throws light on the plight of refugees living in India…
What is your evaluation of the refugee situation in India?
India has historically demonstrated a humane approach towards refugees and asylum seekers. The country has offered asylum to various persecuted communities such as Jews and Parsis, and has been internationally lauded for its management of the Bangladeshi, Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugee crises. The country has also extended asylum to persecuted groups from Afghanistan, Somalia, Myanmar and other conflict-affected countries. However, India has remained a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention arguing that it is Euro-centric, does not address mass influxes and protracted refugee situations and is not cognizant of the porous nature of South-Asia’s borders. Currently, in a unique dual system, the Indian government determines refugee status for asylum-seekers from neighboring regions like Tibet and Sri Lanka, while asylum-seekers from other regions including Myanmar approach the UNHCR office in New Delhi.
While the country also does not have a domestic asylum framework for its 213,000 (UNHCR figures) refugees, though efforts have been made in Parliament since 2006 to pass such a law to ensure that India’s asylum management system becomes uniform, rights relating to refugees get codified; and, more importantly, stands as a symbol of India’s long-standing commitment to refugee protection. Recognizing the importance of such a framework, in 2022 the National Human Rights Commission also noted this law should include “all the best practices implemented so far is needed to ensure uniformity and legal sanctity in protection of human rights of refugees and asylum seekers across the country”.
Is India hospitable to refugees or is it a favored destination?
India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and it does not have a domestic asylum law either. Yet, the country has a rich history of offering asylum to many persecuted communities and has largely always been welcoming. While there is no specific law that guarantees their rights in India, refugees are covered within the reach of certain Indian laws. The Supreme Court judgment (1996) in the case of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) vs State of Arunachal Pradesh for instance is a pioneer ruling which till date is helpful in ensuring certain core constitutional protections for refugees (Art 14 and 21). Refugees have also been given the right to seek the protection of the police and legal system in the case of sexual and gender-based violence and they may also access essential health services, education, child protection systems, and certain government-issued documentation like birth certificates, stay visas etc.
In terms of India being a favored destination for refugees, it is important to note that the numbers hosted by India are relatively much lesser than what other neighboring countries in the region are currently hosting – Bangladesh hosts approximately 1 million refugees (mainly from Myanmar) and Pakistan hosts over 1.3 million refugees (mainly from Afghanistan. Therefore, due to India’s geographical positioning and its policies, it hosts a significantly smaller refugee population as compared to in the past.
India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention? What are its drawbacks?
India argues that the 1951 Refugee Convention is Euro-centric, does not address mass influxes and protracted refugee situations and is not cognizant of the porous nature of South-Asia’s borders. India has further stated that it unfairly imposes a greater burden on developing nations who often host the majority of the world’s refugee groups. Despite this, the country is a member of the Executive Committee of the UNHCR, and has signed and ratified a few international instruments which discuss the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention Against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. India is also a party to the 2004 SAARC Optional Protocol on Terrorism, and the 1967 Declaration on Territorial Asylum, which recognize refugees as a distinct class.
Are you satisfied with the global response to the refugee crisis especially the role of the UNHCR?
Refugees and asylum seekers are amongst the most vulnerable groups in the world, lacking basic protections and in need of international and domestic support. The global community should do all within its power to assist such individuals. Most recently, the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees symbolized the international community’s statement of resolve to improve the world’s response to today’s refugee situations by ensuring that refugees and the nations hosting them receive the support they need. That compact was endorsed by 181 member nations, including India. Its objectives include: sharing responsibilities more equitably, enhancing refugee self-reliance; expanding access to third-country solutions (i.e., permanent resettlement or other opportunities such as scholarships or work permits) and support for conditions in countries of origin for safe, voluntary, dignified repatriation. For this countries, civil society and the UNHCR must work together to ensure protection for those most vulnerable and marginalized to ensure their human rights and dignity remain unviolated.
What are the problems faced by refugees in India?
Given that different groups of refugees are managed through different executive orders, they have varying sets of rights and responsibilities which may not always be clearly spelt out. As the former Joint Secretary of the NHRC stated (2022) “In the absence of such (a domestic) framework, the refugees and asylum seekers face difficulties to have access to basic human rights pertaining to shelter, education, healthcare, livelihood, etc.”. A research study by the Commission also recognized other broad problems faced by the community, including language barriers, poor mental health, socio-cultural differences.
There has been lots of discussion on Rohingya refugees? What is your viewpoint on them?
The Rohingya come under the UNHCR’s mandate under India’s dual asylum policy; all questions regarding them and the current situation would be better responded to by the UN Refugee Agency.
Looking at the experiences of refugees, what has been the most disturbing trend? What is the way forward?
Refugees and asylum seekers are amongst the most vulnerable groups in the world, lacking basic protections and in need of international and domestic support. The most disturbing trend, as we have seen in multiple conflict scenarios, is that, world over, refugees lack legal avenues to seek protection from persecution which has forced many to embark on dangerous routes to flee their country in search of safety. Displacement also disproportionately impacts women and children who face severe forms of sexual and gender based violence in their home countries, during transit and in their countries of asylum. These protection issues can only be fixed if the international community comes together to respect customary international laws, uphold the commitments under the Global Compact for Refugees and ensures that burden-sharing in the management of the global refugee crises.