In Delhi’s Wazirabad village, all of India’s modernity vanishes. This settlement of over 9,000 Afghan refugees is a squalid reminder of South Asia’s civil strife. There are over 23,500 refugees and asylum-seekers in Delhi. For the majority, exile meant long, arduous journeys over harsh terrain with little in their pockets. Most have no legal right to work, forcing them to pursue odd jobs to eke out a living. Since Independence, over 40 million refugees have crossed into India, seeking refuge from strife, inequality, ethnic tension. Partition alone brought over seven million.

Worldwide, there are 59.5 million people who have been forcibly displaced; 19.5 million have been termed refugees (UNRWA, 2014). In 2014, over 42,500 individuals were forced to leave their homes daily—displaced due to fears of persecution for being of a different race, nationality, religion or ethnicity (UNHCR, 2014). Just 1,26,800 refugees returned to their countries of origin in 2014. With group identities stridently asserted and demographic equations challenged as never before, internal colonialism, economic alienation and human rights violation has become more marked. Meanwhile, many refugees have become entangled within foreign policy objectives, with parochial domestic politics often depriving them of the attention they surely deserve.

Pakistan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka offer asylum to significant numbers of refugees, with more than two lakh living in India (only 30,000 are registered). The last three countries have been seeing increasing numbers of asylum-seekers but have limited means to provide them sustainable livelihoods or access to specialised services.

Nebulous region

India is signatory to various human rights conventions on refugees, all requiring adherence to the principle of refoulement. However, such obligations have not translated into legislation at the municipal level. India remains ambivalent towards the UNHCR, welcoming its efforts in refugee identification and registration, but refusing to sign the 1951 convention. With national asylum legislation absent, multilaterals and NGOs have stepped in to assist in resettlement and livelihood generation. More recently, concerns over national security have restricted public and institutional sympathy towards refugees.
Indian refugee laws give the government arbitrary powers of deportation. Such laws have been made stricter, treating “illegal entrants harshly” (Foreigners Act, 1946), despite their unfortunate context and near-penury. Any unregistered refugee is liable to being tried as a threat to India’s national security. And yet, India has also agreed to the SAARC Additional Terrorism Protocol (Article 17), which requires nations to not extradite refugees who are being persecuted in their countries for their race, ethnicity, religion or nationality.

Judicial activism, at the level of the Supreme Court and high courts has also drawn attention to the need for a national asylum law. The Supreme Court has highlighted the importance of refugee protection in some significant rulings (Khudiram Chakma vs State of Arunachal Pradesh; National Human Rights Commission vs State of Arunachal Pradesh), ruling that Chakma refugees could not be deported, given the likelihood of their being killed or discriminated against. Our Constitution requ­ires the “State to protect the life of all human beings, regar­dless of their nationality” (NHRC, 2014). However, protection of refugees remains case-specific and ad hoc.

India needs a national asylum policy—preferably one based on the Model National Refugee Law (MNRL). There remains a parochial fear that enforcing a nationwide asylum law would open the floodgates to legal migration from our neighbours. However, a properly defined asylum policy could distinguish between refugees fleeing persecution and migrants escaping penury. Such an act would establish a formal, fair and humanitarian process. It could also define exclusion from refugee status (such as war criminals and serious offenders). Situations of mass influx, which overwhelm government institutions (for example, during the 1971 war) would be catered to by permitting residence without status determination until repatriation becomes feasible.

Making it humane

Refugee conditions in India’s urban clusters remain parlous. Myan­marese and Afghan refugees in Delhi have restricted access to housing and face discrimination by landlords. Somalian refugees face rampant discrimination. Most Myanmarese refugees work in a limited set of professions, facing workplace discrimination and with limited access to savings and remittance channels. Many refugees have good qualifications but cannot gain fruitful employment for lack of work visas and local accreditation. Harassment and discrimination of refugee children remains common in schools.
Sensitisation remains the key. Institutions should be pushed to recognise the significance of refugee cards issued by UNHCR, along with foreign-issued degrees and diplomas. Cross-community initiatives that engage with India’s local industry and commerce associations, along with financial initiatives that seek to provide acc­ess to small grants to start-up businesses, would help improve refugees’ income and stabilise their livelihoods. Support for refugee community groups along with integration through youth and women’s empowerment workshops could help locals become more accepting of refugees. Higher educational institutions should be encouraged to treat refugees at par with Indian nationals. Refugees should also be helped with vocational training and job placements.

Knowing the numbers

Data deficiency prevents analysis on causes of refugee flow and the existence of refugee social networks. It limits insights on reception and resettlement issues, identity and integration politics and the status of failed asylum-seekers. This lack of accurate data leads to significant underestimation. It can lead to misrepresentation and exaggeration in the media on refugee flows. In addition, with limited knowledge, government institutions cannot, and mostly do not, plan for their resettlement. To enhance the quality of data, outreach programmes should be conducted, combined with biometric efforts like Aadhar. There should also be simpler visa waiver and registration processes.

Redirecting the flow

In the end, most refugees want to go back home. Voluntary repatriation requires circumstances that offer safety and dignity, along with the full commitment of the country of origin. In the long term, voluntary repatriation can be encouraged through “go-and-see” visits, encouraging engagement in reconciliation and providing legal aid and return assistance. Refugees come to India penniless, but with culture and skills. We can combine the best of our traditions with their aspirations, teaching and learning, to build a modern India. Within South Asia, India must encourage Nepal to issue documentation to its long-staying Tibetan population, while fostering the resettlement of Tamil refugees in northern Sri Lanka.

We remain a refuge, absorbing Tibetan (1959), Bangladeshi (1971), Chakma (1963), Sri Lankan Tamil (1983, 1989, 1995) and Afghan (1980) refugees. India, with its culture of tolerance and forbearance, must stay true to its civilisational values. We need to encourage refugee protection, providing them with freedom from arbitrary detention and non-refoulement. Our institutional support for this civilisational creed must continue.