In view of the present quandary in the world due to the ongoing crises in South Sudan and Syria, the humanitarian importance of the World Refugee Day, June 20, stands validated more than ever before. The observance of the World Refugee Day was started at the behest of the United Nations from 2001 to commemorate the abject distress faced by the forcefully displaced persons and raise awareness about their situation worldwide. As per the Global Trends Report on Forced Displacement in 2016 published by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), 65.6 million individuals stood forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations by the end of 2016. There were 65.3 million of them worldwide at the end of 2015. That was an increase of 300,000 people over 2015, and the world’s forcibly displaced population remained at a record high.
The UNHCR defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.” The main difference between the terms “refugee” and “migrant” is that migrants choose to move to improve their lives as opposed to evading a direct threat of persecution or death. If they choose to return home, they will continue to receive the protection of their government.
At the international level, the most comprehensive legally binding policy detailing the standards for the treatment of refugees is the ‘United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees’, popularly known as the 1951 Refugee Convention, ratified by 145 state parties on 28th July 1951. The 1951 Convention was initially designed as a post World War II instrument, protecting persons fleeing events that predated January 1st, 1951 and within Europe. So far, it has undergone only one amendment in the form of the 1967 Protocol which removed these temporal and spatial limitations, thus giving the Convention universal applicability. While majority of the world are parties to the multilateral agreement, India continues to desist acceding to it. However, the Indian government largely abides by the principle of non-refoulement, which is the cornerstone of the Convention. It prevents any form of expulsions or non-admittance at the frontier by state machinery of the asylum country against the will of the refugee or stateless person, unless such measures are dictated by reasons of national security or public order.
Though India does not have any legal documentation of its refugee policy, the Indian course of action has largely been a liberal one, allowing political asylum seekers to settle within the Indian borders. For example, Dalai Lama had been provided political asylum in India at the risk of deterioration in relationships with China. At the end of 2016, according to the UNHCR, there were 2,07,070 persons of concern in India, out of whom 1,97,851 were refugees and 9,219 were asylum seekers. Over the years, thousands of refugees, including Tibetans, Afghans, Bangladeshi Chakmas and Sri Lankan Tamils have been provided shelter within India. But in view of the permeability of the international borders, it is difficult to pin down the exactitude of the very limited data available.
The Indian approach continues to be a de facto one, where the contemporary government devises its asylum policy on an ad hoc and case-to-case basis, at times motivated by local electoral goals. The Asylum Bill, 2015, a private member bill introduced in the Parliament by M.P. Shashi Tharoor, seeks “to provide for the establishment of an effective system to protect refugees and asylum seekers by means of an appropriate legal framework to determine claims for asylum and to provide for the rights and obligations flowing from such status and matters connected therewith”. This however, is yet to receive legal status. Though there is no formal declaration from the UNHCR or from the Indian government stating precise reasons for not signing the Convention, the existing opinion in academia is that the looming threat on political stability, internal security and international relations mainly prohibit India from ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The highly porous nature of the international borders in South Asian countries poses a major impediment to the implementation the Eurocentric formulations in the policy. It would be extremely difficult to put in place effective border control measures to supervise population entry that the 1951 Refugee Convention demands. These issues are effectively dealt with by most of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) members through bilateral agreements. Furthermore, there remains a concern for the socio-economic and cultural composition within the border states of India. Most South Asian nationalities harbour deeply embedded cultural identities.
Although on one side, the already existing stress on the available infrastructure and employment opportunities makes it difficult for developing countries to accommodate sudden spikes in population, on the other, cross-border movement of population has been a historically accepted phenomenon. Given the problems that India faces with respect to international migration, it would be difficult for the Indian government to guarantee fair treatment to the multitudes whose lives and livelihoods are intrinsically linked beyond boundaries, which would be binding under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The question now is whether India can be treated as a sub-region filled with a sense of historicity, or does it need to endorse an explicit refugee policy to protect its borders and prevent the entry of culturally congruent people?