India Refugee Policy: The Refugee Problem in India is again in the limelight after the February 2021 coup in Myanmar. Numerous people are coming to India from Myanmar to save their lives. However, the Indian government is reluctant to allow this influx considering the challenges posed by refugees.
Recent Refugee Problem
Myanmar witnessed refugee influx after the coup in the country and subsequent military rule. Some democratic groups started protesting against the coup. It resulted in the military crackdown on the dissenters.
So, Many people in Myanmar and the security forces who oppose the coup, start fleeing the country and entering India.
Against this backdrop, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) directed Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh to check illegal influx from Myanmar into India.
It has also called for sealing the border with Myanmar so as to curtail the influx.
The ministry clarified that state governments have no powers to grant ‘refugee’ status to any foreigner.
Refugee issue in India: Earlier instances
India has been generous to refugees and asylum-seekers. The two largest Refugee Influx in India are including some 62,000 Sri Lankans and some 100,000 Tibetans are directly assisted by the Government of India.
In late 2011, the Rohingya started to arrive in India’s Northeast following stepped-up persecution by the Myanmarese armed forces. There are roughly 14,000 Rohingya refugees in India who are registered with the UNHCR and around 40,000 Rohingya living in India illegally.
India’s Refugee Policy
India lacks specific legislation to address the problem of refugees, in spite of their increasing inflow.
The Foreigners Act, 1946, fails to address the peculiar problems faced by refugees as a class. It also gives unbridled power to the Central government to deport any foreign citizen.
However, India is a signatory to a number of United Nations and World Conventions on Human Rights. Such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It affirms basic rights for all persons – citizens and non-citizens in the same manner.
Further, the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) strikingly excludes Muslims from its purview and seeks to provide citizenship only to Hindu, Christian, Jain, Parsi, Sikh, and Buddhist immigrants persecuted in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Moreover, India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, the key legal documents pertaining to refugee protection.
In spite of not being a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, India has had a stellar record on the issue of refugee protection. India has a moral tradition for assimilating foreign people and culture.
Further, the constitution of India also respects the life, liberty, and dignity of human beings.
The Supreme Court in the National Human Rights Commission vs. State of Arunachal Pradesh (1996) held that “while all rights are available to citizens, persons including foreign citizens are entitled to the right to equality and the right to life, among others.”
India’s Argument for Not Signing the 1951 Refugee Convention
The definition of refugees in the 1951 convention only pertains to the violation of civil and political rights, but not economic rights, of individuals.
For instance, a person, under the definition of the convention, could be considered if he/she is deprived of political rights, but not if he/she is deprived of economic rights.
If the violation of economic rights were to be included in the definition of a refugee, it would clearly pose a major burden on the developed world.
On the other hand, this argument, if used in the South Asian context, could be a problematic proposition for India too.
Challenges Associated With India’s Refugee Policy
Refugees or Immigrants: In the recent past, many people from neighboring countries tend to illegally immigrate to India, not because of state persecution but in search of better economic opportunities in India.
Much of the debate in the country is about illegal immigrants, not refugees, the two categories tend to get bunched together. Due to this, policies and remedies to deal with these issues suffer from a lack of clarity as well as policy utility.
The main reason why our policies towards illegal immigrants and refugees are confused is that as per Indian law, both categories of people are viewed as one and the same and are covered under the Foreigners Act, 1946.
Ad-hocism: The absence of such a legal framework also leads to policy ambiguity whereby India’s refugee policy is guided primarily by ad hocism.
Ad hoc measures enable the government in office to pick and choose ‘what kind’ of refugees it wants to admit for whatever political or geopolitical reasons.
This results in a discriminatory action, which tends to be a violation of human rights.
Arguments in favour of permitting Refugee Influx
Humanitarian Rights: India has an implicit obligation under UDHR to protect the human rights of non-citizens as well.
Responsible Regional Power: The country aspires to be regional and global power that itself calls for adopting an accommodative stance towards refugees.
Champion of Democracy: The world’s largest democracy has a responsibility of protecting the rights of people who put their lives in danger for upholding democracy.
Challenges to India’s internal security due to refugee influx
1. Social consequences
Refugees might create an identity crisis with the indigenous people. For example, Bangladeshi refugees in Assam and Arunachal threaten to overtake the indigenous population of the region.
Difficult to identify and deport them back to their country after a few years. For example, the Rohingya refugees entered through the North-East. But later they spread to all other states.
2. Economic consequence
Increased financial responsibility of the state. According to the UNHCR report in 2014, there were more than 200,000 refugees in India. India at present does not have the financial capacity to satisfy all their basic needs.
Decreases domestic wage level and replaces the native people. Since illegal immigrants and refugees require food and shelter, they also work at very low wages in their settling areas.
3. Political consequence
Issue of terrorism: These refugees, since not accepted by governments, are vulnerable to join terror outfits for work and revenue.
Suggestions to solve the Refugee Problem
There is a need to formulate a comprehensive refugee policy that would provide greater clarity in differentiating between a refugee/illegal migrant.
Thirdly, the government has to strengthen the Foreigners Act 1946 and also sign bilateral agreements with neighbourhood countries regarding deportation.
The states must cooperate with the centre on the refugee problem and follow the MHA guidelines of 2018 to identify illegal immigrants. The MHA recommendations include,
In spite of not being a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, India has been one of the largest recipients of refugees in the world. There should be an intake of refugees but not at the cost of the native population. So, It is high time for India to define a clear-cut refugee policy.