Tibetan children point to places in India where they lived as refugees | John Moore/Getty Images
Tibetan children point to places in India where they lived as refugees | John Moore/Getty Images
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Forced displacement of people in India has been a chronic affliction.

The devastating floods in Kerala displaced over a million people. As the flood waters recede and the recriminations rise, the devastation highlights one of the scourges of human history: the forced displacement of people due to wars and conflict, economic implosion or natural disasters, arising from weather-related reasons (floods and drought), or geophysical reasons (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions).

About a billion people move each year, but most of this (about three-fourths) occurs within their countries, and the rest move across national borders and become international migrants.

While most people move for economic and social reasons (better education, livelihoods or marriage), in 2017, it was estimated that just under 1 per cent of the world’s population (68.5 million people) had been forced to move over the years. The majority (40 million in 2017) were internally displaced, while about 25 million were refugees and another 3 million sought asylum.


Also read: 80 years before Kerala floods, Mahatma Gandhi blamed caste system for natural disasters


In 2017, more than 2.7 million people fled their home to another country. Almost nine out of ten came from just three countries: South Sudan, Syria, and Myanmar. However, while the exodus from these countries appears to have peaked, the largest forced displacement of people in Latin America’s history has been unfolding in Venezuela. That country’s government has so wrecked its economy that about four million Venezuelans (out of a population of some 30 million) have fled and it is estimated that the number could even exceed the six million people who have fled Syria. This from a country that was among the highest income countries in the region just a few decades ago.

The vast majority (85 per cent) of the world’s displaced people live in developing countries. While this would appear to be evident in the case of internally displaced people, the largest refugee-hosting countries are developing countries as well – Turkey, Uganda, Pakistan, Lebanon and Iran. Again this is not surprising since people fleeing conflict and disasters can usually only walk or take ground transport – which inevitably takes them to a neighbouring country, whether Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon or Iraq, Afghan refugees in Pakistan, South Sudanese in Uganda, or Rohingyas in Bangladesh.


Also read: India’s traditional refugee policy shows why it’s unlikely to give Rohingyas sanctuary


When people who have been coercively displaced are given refuge in another (neighbouring) country in response to a humanitarian crisis, it is expected that they will return when the circumstances in their country of origin improve. While some refugees eventually settle and take roots in the country of first refuge, the UNHCR seeks to resettle others elsewhere. Less than 1 per cent of refugees get resettled, and the numbers have been declining as political opposition mounts in Western countries, exemplified by the United States.

The US admitted 69 per cent of the world’s resettled refugees between 1982 and 2016, followed by Canada (14 per cent) and Australia (11 per cent). Even then, the US resettled just about 0.6 per cent of the globe’s total refugee population each year. Under President Donald Trump, this number has dropped sharply to about 0.2 per cent of the world’s refugee population. It must be emphasised that richer east Asian countries such as Korea and Japan, or upper-middle income countries in east and central Europe contribute little to refugee resettlement.

Between the fiscal years 2002 and 2017, 55 per cent of refugees entering the US came from Burma (Myanmar), Iraq, Somalia or Bhutan. Over the past decade, Burmese refugees have been the largest group resettled to the United States, representing 23 per cent of the 708,354 refugees admitted since 2007. Iraqis were next at 20 per cent, followed by Nepalese speakers from Bhutan (13 per cent).

The smallest category – but one where details are hardest to uncover – is those seeking asylum. In the US, refugees are usually those outside the country when they are screened for resettlement, whereas asylum-seekers are already physically within the country when they submit their applications.

According to the UNHCR Global Trends report, at the end of 2017, there were 1.9 million new asylum claims lodged and 3.1 million asylum-seekers waiting for decisions on their applications. These asylum-seekers came largely from Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Afghanistan. From 2014 through 2016, the US consistently received more than half of the total asylum requests to OECD countries, followed by Germany, Italy, and Turkey.

What about India?

Forced displacement of people in India has been a chronic affliction. While forced relocation for development projects gets much attention, the majority of people are forced to move because of natural disasters, especially floods, as was the case with Bihar last year and Kerala this year. More than 1.3 million people were displaced in 2017, with nearly two-thirds due to monsoon floods in Bihar. The temporary nature of the shock means that most return after the floodwaters ebb. Consequently – as evident in the figure below – the stock numbers are considerably less than the flow numbers. About 78,000 people were displaced by conflict last year, with the majority linked to border clashes in Jammu and Kashmir.

Source: Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, Norway

As far as international displacement goes, there are about 8,000 Indian refugees (persons recognised as refugees under various international conventions and protocols). However, the number of Indian asylum-seekers (with pending cases) is substantially larger at around 40,000.

While the number of asylum seekers from India is not large in absolute numbers, new asylum requests from Indians to OECD countries have more than tripled over the past decade. The most popular countries for Indian asylum applications has changed over time, with South Africa and Australia the most favoured destinations in 2007, the US and Australia in 2011, and the US and Germany in 2016.

Source: OECD, International Migration Outlook 2018.

Who are the Indians asking for asylum?

Most asylum requests appear to come from Punjab, Haryana, and Gujarat, with asylum-seekers citing political and religious persecution as the reasons for seeking asylum. The LA Times cites data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, that from fiscal years 2012 to 2017, about 42 per cent of asylum cases from India were rejected. Curiously, if one reads reports from human rights organisations on India, the groups that are most vulnerable to human rights abuses in India (tribals, Dalits, and Muslims) are not the ones that seek asylum abroad, leading one to speculate that at least some of this is illegal migrants gaming the system.


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Conversely, India also hosts a large number of refugees (about 200,000 currently – largely from neighbouring countries), as well as asylum-seekers (with about 10,000 pending cases). It has been wary of joining international conventions or passing domestic laws on refugees, preferring a case-by-case approach that is shaped more by national security and foreign policy concerns than humanitarian sensibilities. While India has been much criticised for its approach, it is one where many other countries are also headed towards, at least de facto if not de jure.

Devesh Kapur is the Starr Foundation South Asia Studies Professor and Asia Programs Director at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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