Most South Asian countries, including India, do not have a national, regional or international policy for the protection of refugees. They also haven’t officially disclosed why there is no policy.
Over the past decades, though, many reasons have been inferred towards this peculiar South Asian behaviour. For instance, India’s reluctance to accept refugees could be attributed to the international community’s response to its call for assistance while dealing with lakhs of people who had arrived here after fleeing Bangladesh in 1971.
The 1947 population exchange
India’s Partition in 1947 witnessed one of the most historic and painful population exchanges in the world. Millions of people displaced from Pakistan found themselves in numerous refugee camps set up in Delhi, Punjab and Bengal, uncertain of their future and prospects in a newly created nation which was now their home.
The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, the only refugee instrument that existed at the time, had been created to accord protection to people displaced in the aftermath of World War II. The Convention’s Euro-centric nature was clear in its limitations – it was applicable to the events occurring in “Europe or elsewhere before 1 January 1951” and gave refugee status to someone “who has lost the protection of their state of origin or nationality”. This essentially meant that the 1951 Convention, in its original form, was only applicable to people who had fled a state-sponsored (or state-supported) persecution.
The Partition of India and the migration of 1947, while within the Convention’s timeline, did not fall into the category of ‘state-supported/sponsored persecution’. People who had migrated were forced to do so due to ‘social persecution’ instead of ‘state-sponsored persecution’ or ‘war’. The subsequent concerns of both India and Pakistan to attribute a more liberal meaning to the term ‘refugee’ in order to include internally displaced people or those displaced due to social rifts were rejected at the international level. This created an overall scepticism towards the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Expanding the Convention
The United Nations in 1967 eventually removed the dateline of 1 January 1951 in its ‘Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees’ keeping in view the “new refugee situations (that) have arisen since the Convention was adopted”.
India under Jawaharlal Nehru chose not to sign the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol due to the fear of international criticism and unnecessary interference in what it has always maintained is its “internal matter”. The Convention requires the signatory nation to accord a minimum standard of hospitality and housing towards those it accepts as refugees. Failure to provide the minimum continues to attract a lot of international criticism for host nations even today.
The porous nature of borders in South Asia, continuous demographic changes, poverty, resource crunch, and internal political discontent made it impossible for India to accede to the Protocol. American political scientist Myron Weiner, a known scholar on India, has said that signing the 1951 Convention or its Protocol would have meant allowing international scrutiny of ‘India’s internal security, political stability and international relations’.
The 1971 exodus
The military repression in then-East Pakistan led to an estimated 10 million people seeking refuge in India by the end of 1971. It created extraordinary problems for India, and it was realised that international assistance would be needed to cope with the massive refugee influx and prepare for their repatriation. The Indira Gandhi government was getting increasingly concerned about the drain of resources by refugees. The problem was compounded with a large number of refugees housed in 330 camps across Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya. As some researchers have previously noted, the problem was not only of the enormity of the exodus but also of where these camps were located. For example, camps in Tripura housed over nine lakh refugees against an indigenous population of 15 lakh. There was a heightened sense of crisis, which was worsened by the outbreak of cholera in the camps.
In May 1971, Hindustan Standard reported: “Many of the refugees are suffering from infectious diseases. Some 626 doctors and 60 refugee doctors are trying to cope with this overwhelming situation, aided by some 800 paramedical personnel. Over 2,700 beds have been added to the existing 42 hospitals, but what will the situation be tomorrow? On this day a further 100,000 refugees have arrived in the Nadia district alone.”
The Indira Gandhi government in New Delhi expected the international community to refund a major part of the expenses it was incurring by looking after a sick refugee population. The Permanent Representative of India at the United Nations, Samar Sen, requested international aid. In May 1971, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Sadruddin Aga Khan, made it clear that it would be unrealistic to expect the UN to bear full responsibility for the financial burden. Nevertheless, an appeal for assistance was launched, which resulted in a pledge for a measly US$70 million in aid. Aga Khan and then-UN Secretary-General U Thant decided that the UNHRC should act as the ‘focal point’ for the coordination of all UN assistance.
The absence of a direct aid commitment to the Indian government, coupled with Sadruddin Aga Khan’s visit to East Pakistan on the insistence of General Yaya Khan, made Indira Gandhi and the Congress party highly suspicious of the ‘neutral’ operations of the UN, making the Indian stance towards the International Refugee Regime even more sceptical.
Subsequently, the reparation operation in 1971, and those initiated in 1973 and 1974, were conducted with the UNHCR offices housed in Dhaka.
UNHCR in India
The 1971 exodus continues to be a crucial event that determines India’s attitude towards the International Refugee Regime and the UNHCR’s own institutional constraints in dealing with massive population movements. However, since 1981, the UNHCR has been operational in India with a limited mandate of assisting the Indian government in its plans to support refugees and asylum-seekers.
The UNHCR works with the government, NGOs and civil societies to facilitate refugees and asylum-seekers in accessing public health, education and legal aid services. However, the policy on grant of refugee, asylum or temporary assistance to people displaced due to persecution in their home countries are determined by the Indian government through a bilateral or multilateral process with those countries, in line with its international relations policies.
Nevertheless, any decision of the Indian government to grant refugee or asylum status cannot be isolated from its international responsibility under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (of which India is a signatory). These international regimes coupled with the guidelines under the Constitution make it necessary for India to adopt a refugee policy that is non-discriminatory and includes everyone who has faced persecution, despite their nationality, religion, gender or place of birth.
And yet, as the Narendra Modi-led BJP government continues to talk of ‘infiltrators’ and amend the Citizenship Act to give shelter to non-Muslims from neighbouring countries, India, ironically, shows no enthusiasm to frame a refugee policy.
Dr Ritumbra Manuvie is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Transboundary Legal Studies, University of Groningen, The Netherlands. She is an expert in Humanitarian Law with a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh where she conducted an ethno-legal study on the issues of governance of migration in Assam. Views are personal.