Refugee problem in India – UPSC GS2

  • India has the largest number of refugees in the world. Currently, India hosts over 2,00,000 refugees from Tibet, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Myanmar.
  • Some refugees, the Tibetans who arrived between 1959 and 1962, were given adequate refuge in over 38 settlements, with all privileges provided to an Indian citizen excluding the right to vote).
Refugee Vs Illegal immigration:
The issue of refugees often gets included under illegal immigration. These two different issues get jumbled together. Policies and solutions to deal with these issues suffer from a lack of clarity.
  • Confusion in policies is because as per Indian law, both categories of people are viewed as the same. They both are covered under the Foreigners Act, 1946. The definition of a foreigner in the act is a person who is not a citizen of India.
  • India lacks legal provisions to deal with them separately. India is not a part of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. The absence of such convention and its legal framework leads to policy vagueness.
  • It also increases the risk of the domestic politicisation of protecting the refugees.
  • Informal methods allow the government to pick and choose the refugees it wants to admit or send back.
Why India should not join Refugee Convention?
India is not a part of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.
  • Economic Rights not included: The definition of refugees in the 1951 convention only refers to the violation of civil and political rights, but not economic rights. If economic rights were to be included, then it would pose a major burden on the developed world as many would sought refuge based on poverty status.
  • European countries themselves violate convention: No entry regime of Western countries is a clear violation of the 1951 convention. This includes Indirect policies to reject refugees like,
    • Visa restrictions, carrier sanctions and interdictions.
    • Restrictive interpretations of the definition of a refugee.
    • Removal of social welfare benefits to asylum seekers etc.
Suggestion to improve the Refugee situation in India:
  • India must use its history of refugee protection to begin a global conversation on the refugee problem.
  • Creation of New domestic law aimed at refugees.  In the absence of proper legal measures, refugee documentation, and work permit, refugees may end up becoming illegal immigrants. So, such a law should include certain essential provisions. Such as,
    • Allowing refugees for temporary shelter and providing work permits.
    • Differentiate between temporary migrant workers, illegal immigrants and refugees.
    • The law should deal with each of them differently through proper legal and institutional mechanisms.
Legal Framework in India for Refugees:
  • From an Indian context, the Foreigners Act (1946) and the Registration of Foreigners Act (1939) currently govern the entry and exit of all refugees, treating them as foreigners without due consideration of their special circumstances.
  • Refugees have been accorded constitutional protection by the judiciary. The National Human Rights Commission vs State of Arunachal Pradesh, 1996 case lends testimony to this.
  • Honourable Supreme Court of India has held that the right to equality (Article 14) and right to life and personal liberty (Article 21) extends to refugees.
  • However, it is also important to note that India remains the only significant democracy without legislation specifically for refugees.
  • Critics have pointed out that a well-defined asylum law would establish a formal refuge granting process with suitable exclusions (war criminals, serious offenders, etc.) kept.
  • It is also critical to note that India still remains a non-signatory to 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, which help define the legal obligation of states to protect refugees.
Brief about Chakma and Hajong tribal issue:
  • The Chakmas and the Hajongs were originally inhabitants of the Chittagong Hill Tracts of erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) who were systematically forced out of that country.
  • First, they were displaced from their original homesteads because of the Kaptai hydroelectric dam on the Karnaphuli river in the early 1960s, and there was no rehabilitation and compensation.
  • Later, they became victims of religious persecution in East Pakistan, and fled to India.
  • It is important to note that while the Chakmas are Buddhists, the Hajongs are Hindus.
  • In the year 1947, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, which was a deeply forested, mountainous, area bordering Tripura, Mizoram and Myanmar, with a majority Buddhist population (about 97 per cent), was awarded to Pakistan.
  • In 1962, the Pakistani government imposed further misery on the Chakma tribe by building the Kaptai dam.
  • Approximately 40,000 Chakma tribals, who had lost their homes and farmland due to flooding, emigrated to India as refugees.
  • India, facing its own war in 1962 on the north-eastern border, offered 2,902 Chakma refugee families resettlement in Arunachal Pradesh.
  • It was only in the year 1996, with the Supreme Court pushing the State government to protect the Chakmas, did the harassment decline.
  • It is also important to note that although all of them were treated as refugees originally, the Government of India decided to grant them citizenship under Section 5(i)(a) of the Citizenship Act on the basis of a joint statement by the PMs of India and Bangladesh in 1972.
  • The State of Arunachal Pradesh, which came into being the same year, immediately opposed this, and continues to do so.
  • The state has been repeatedly saying that it could not permit “outsiders” to settle on its territory because that would adversely affect its demography, and stretch its limited resources.
  • Despite the opposition, however, about 1,500 Chakmas have their names in the state’s electoral rolls.
  • In 2017, the Centre decided it would grant citizenship to Chakma and Hajong refugees living in the Northeast while ensuring that the rights of indigenous people are not diluted.

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