New Delhi: Every minute, around 20 people are forcibly displaced from their homes around the world — by war, persecution, genocide, terror, hunger, poverty or climate-induced droughts.
Millions have undertaken treacherous journeys by road and sea in search of liveable conditions. And to raise awareness and educate people about this looming refugee crisis, the United Nations has been observing 20 June as World Refugee Day each year since 2000.
Over 65 million people around the world are currently displaced from their homes. It is the highest figure recorded by the UN since the Second World War.
It was earlier estimated that the refugee population increased by 2.9 million in 2017, which equals 44,400 displaced people every day. By the end of that year, 68.5 million had left their homelands following armed conflict, genocide or terror.
Some of the biggest crises have been witnessed in Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2017 saw 16.2 million new displaced people, which included 11.8 million displaced inside the borders of their countries and 4.4 million new asylum seekers.
Who is a refugee?
The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention states that a refugee is one who has fled her or his home and country due to a “well-founded fear of persecution because of her or his race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion”.
The 2019 theme — ‘Step with refugees: Take a step on World Refugee Day’ — therefore urges nations to help resettle displaced persons.
Documents and treaties
The 1951 Refugee Convention was a remarkable step in acknowledging mass displacements after World War II. It defined who a refugee is, what her or his rights are, and how member nations should deal with displaced people or grant them asylum.
The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees removed temporal and geographical restrictions on the 1951 convention — which defined refugees as displaced persons before 1951, restricted in Europe mainly due to the world war.
Madhav Mallya, a researcher on Rohingya migration at Bennett University in Greater Noida, said, “Fear of national security, terrorism and lack of jobs has led many countries to elect conservative and nationalist governments in the past few years. This has subsequently led to borders of many countries being closed for refugees.”
Biggest refugee crises
Europe’s migration crisis: From 2015 to 2017, the world saw the highest displacement of people, with more than 1 million refugees trying to enter Europe by the end of 2015.
According to estimates of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) and the UNHCR, 3 per cent (34,215 refugees) of those who came to Europe in 2015 had arrived via land in Bulgaria and Greece. The rest had arrived via sea in Greece, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Malta.
The vast majority of refugees (816,752) had landed in Greece in 2015, while around 150,317 arrived in Italy by sea. The IOM estimated that a total of 3,692 migrants and refugees lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea while 731 died in the Aegean Sea that year. Of those who died, 58 per cent were males and 17 per cent females.
Half of these displaced people who had crossed the Mediterranean Sea were from Syria and were attempting to flee the civil war; 20 per cent were from Afghanistan, 7 per cent were escaping the Islamic State violence in Iraq, and the rest were from sub-Saharan Africa, fleeing their homes due to violence and poverty.
As the crisis loomed large, Germany adopted an ‘open door policy’ for refugees. But with the numbers of asylum seekers swelling, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s popularity too dipped to its lowest since 2011. Facing staunch criticism at home also meant that the Chancellor could not enjoy an impenetrable image any more. She is due to step down from her position in 2021.
While Greece and Italy were the first countries to welcome migrants travelling via sea, Greece saw an influx of nearly 1 million refugees which created pressure on the country’s fragile economy.
Rohingya Muslims are a minority group in the Rakhine State of Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Many of them are Sunni Muslims and stateless since the Myanmar government does not acknowledge them as an ethnic group.
They lack legal protection from the Myanmar government, which has labelled the group as Bangladeshi refugees. The Rohingyas have been facing extreme persecution by Myanmar authorities and its majority Buddhist groups.
The crisis began in November 2015 when Aung San Suu Kyi won the first democratic elections in a power-sharing agreement with the military. The Rohingya were not allowed to contest or even vote in these elections.
In 2016, 300 Rohingya men attacked border posts in the Rakhine State and killed nine police officers. This incident prompted an intense crackdown on Rohingyas by the Myanmar military and triggered 87,000 people from the minority group to flee to Bangladesh.
Till 2017, more than 600,000 Rohingyas had arrived in Bangladesh.
Rohingyas in India
Thousands of Rohingyas entered India through various routes and settled in Assam, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. According to various estimates, there are close to 40,000 Rohingyas in the country, with the largest concentration in Jammu (around 11,000).
The UNHCR has issued identity cards to around 16,500 Rohingyas in India, which it says help “prevent harassment, arbitrary arrests, detention and deportation” of refugees.
Officially, India has categorised Rohingyas as illegal immigrants and a threat to the nation’s national security. India has also made it clear that the principle of non-refoulement in the 1951 Convention — not forcing refugees to return to their country of origin — does not apply to it since it is not a party to the convention.
Seven Rohingya men were deported to Myanmar by India in October 2017, followed by another deportation of a family of five in January this year.
In India, refugees are considered under the ambit of the term ‘alien’ — which appears in the Constitution (Article 22, Para 3) and refers to immigrants who have settled in the country without legal paperwork.
The term also appears in Section 83 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, where a difference has been made between ‘alien enemies’ and ‘alien friends’ — essentially referring to those as ‘alien enemies’ whose country of origin is at war with India.
Delhi’s Kalindi Kunj is home to around 230 Rohingya migrants, who have made makeshift camps and settled around the area. Nazir Ahmed, 30, a Rohingya from Rakhine State who is currently residing here, said, “The UN cards are not accepted by officials in India as identity proof”. Ahmed also recalled how a fire at the makeshift camp some time ago had destroyed all his savings as well as the UNHCR card.
Recounting the horrors of Rakhine State, Salim, another migrant residing in Delhi, said, “Whenever police visits the area, it reminds me of the military in Myanmar who would shoot at us if they saw us talking to our neighbours.”
Also read: Bangladesh wants India to pressure Myanmar on Rohingya refugees
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