Rethinking The Refugee Crisis

    • By,
      Pranitha Pullamaraju – Student, Kautilya

The refugee crisis around the world is a complex humanitarian problem. Globally, more than 100 million people have been forced to flee due to persecution, conflict, protracted crises, human rights violations, and alarming public order. Refugees come to India because of the belief that we are a tolerant country, and welcoming them is at the core of our secular and multi-cultural fabric. However, India is the only significant democracy with a scant legal framework to protect refugees. India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Refugee protection in India is ambiguous and based on complementary legislation, and judicial pronouncements. Refugees are entitled to protection only under Protection against arbitrary abuse of power under Article 14 and the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

India currently hosts nearly two lakh refugees. The Refugee Status determination in India is divided between the Government and UNHCR, and their status is at the discretion of the Indian state. The Foreigners Act of 1946 and the Passports Act of 1967 are the only legislations relevant to international migration that accord no differential treatment to refugees, making them vulnerable to detention and deportation. Most refugees in India originate from Sri Lanka, Tibet, Myanmar, and Afghanistan. However, only Sri Lankan and Tibetan refugees (92,978 and 72,312, respectively) are managed by the Government and are the only ones having access to schools, hospitals, and the domestic job market. Those arriving from other countries are required to approach the UNHCR. The UNHCR has become increasingly bureaucratic and corrupt, and most refugees must wait years before UNHCR processes their applications.

Moreover, having the UNHCR refugee status neither provides refugees with sufficient protection nor gives them due recognition because of the lack of awareness among the masses. The ad hoc approach threatens to exclude thousands of refugees in India from their fundamental human rights. There is a need for a multi-stakeholder system that guarantees better understanding between the national Government and UNHCR.

The Refugee issue was exacerbated in the realm of public disclosure during the Citizenship Amendment Act- the first legislation seeking to extend refugee protection. The CAA allows all religious minority groups except Muslims from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to apply for citizenship, affecting both the government-mandate and UNHCR-mandate refugees. Unfortunately, the Government is trying to treat refugees as migrants and deal with them under the CAA rather than the Foreigners Act. There are also numerous reports of detention of Rohingyas, based on the claim that they posed a threat to our country’s internal security, albeit the defiance of the non-refoulement principle.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of the refugees. The existing refugee policy in India does not seem capable of dealing with future challenges. It is time for India to take cognisance of the refugee crisis and frame sustainable refugee resettlement and rehabilitation policies. Over the years, refugees have immensely enriched India’s culture and economy. Thus, refugees’ inclusion, dignity, and self-determination must be anchored in India’s national policy, and refugee empowerment and protection strategies must be well-mapped.

India needs to ensure documentation of refugees and asylum seekers. The Indian Government must advocate for legislation that would uphold their social and economic standing. Mapping refugee demographics and considering their needs would aid in their resettlement. Policy advocacy with ministries responsible for delivering essential services such as education, healthcare, and social welfare is necessary. Increased collaboration of the state and non-state actors is critical for realizing refugee protection. As a signatory to numerous conventions on refugee issues and voting affirmatively to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, India is obliged to protect refugee rights. Ratifying the 1967 Refugee Convention or enacting a national refugee law would reinforce the sense of fraternity among the refugees and reinstate their faith in the Indian state. The legislation will help better understand the agencies’ roles and the protection to which refugees are entitled.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.