Is it the last straw?
By Dr S Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
An urgent plea against a proposal of the Government of India to deport Rohingya Muslim refugees in India back to their native country Myanmar is before the Supreme Court. The plea has been made by two refugees facing imminent threat in their country and seeking protection of life and liberty in India. A challenge to our generosity, but proverbial last straw!
It is estimated that there are around 40,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees in India. The estimates do vary as most of them are unregistered and hence officially not recognised as refugees by the government. They are spread across the country in Muslim and non-Muslim localities, but bulk of them are staying in Jammu. The apex court has asked the Centre to respond to the petition.
Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand besides India are affected by influx of this population driven from their homeland. According to latest estimates based on calculations of UN sources, 174,000 Rohingyas have sought refuge in Bangladesh since last October. They include a number of Hindus.
The issue basically is between Rohingya Muslims who claim to be descendants of indigenous inhabitants of Rakhine region in north-west Myanmar and the Government of Myanmar which considers them as refugees from Bangladesh. They are denied Myanmar citizenship under the Citizenship Law of 1982 and consequently deprived of fundamental rights.
Added to that, they have become targets of military and police atrocities. It is said that violence against them by Buddhist nationals led to large-scale exodus of these people to neighbouring countries by land and water. They are dubbed as “boat people” in international media as they travelled by crude boats. Thus, it is purely an internal problem of Myanmar in which neighbouring countries are drawn due to proximity.
UN Convention of 1951 defines Refugee as “a person who, owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.
This definition has been gradually expanded in international law to include persons who have fled their countries due to armed conflicts, internal turmoil, and gross violation of human rights who are referred to in international politics as humanitarian refugees.
The UNHRC considers that Rohingya Muslims is one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world. The Burmese army is accused of perpetrating various kinds of human rights violations against them — murder, gang rape, arson, infanticide and so on. In the last one week, it is reported that 2,600 homes of this community were burnt down by security forces and extremists. Over 1,000 are reported killed in the conflict in Rakhine State.
The 21st century is witnessing a spate of refugee problems reminding us of the years between the two World Wars. Mass exodus from Syria to European countries has not subsided yet. East Asia is erupting with smaller but serious human rights violations. Refugee influx and illegal migrations are faced in India as in many countries spoiling prospects of cordial bilateral relations with adjacent States and sometimes creating local conflicts.
India is not a signatory to 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and has not enacted any legislation in the matter. But, it scrupulously follows the international principle known as “Non-refoulement” which forbids States from forcibly returning people to a country where they would be at real risk of human rights violations. The Convention was adopted soon after World War II. Today, it is very much a relevant part of our progress in humanitarian ideals, but care is required to ward against exploitative regimes generating refugees.
The Indian sub-continent is historically renowned for its generosity in accepting people of different races, religions, languages and nationalities and living in peace with them. Apart from the controversial Aryan migration and the demographic fall out of the politics of the Partition of India in 1947, India has been home to many migrant populations. From Zoroastrians (Parsis) who found refuge in India to protect their religion in the 12th century and have taken India as their permanent and only homeland to present day Rohingya Muslims who seek protection for their life, there have been several population movements.
Tibetan refugees have come in three waves – first in 1959 during Tibetan uprising when 14th Dalai Lama fled to India from Chinese onslaught, second in 1980s to escape political repression, and the continuing third wave in the form of steady stream of Tibetans to Dharamsala.
The Chakma tribals from East Pakistan numbering over 40,000 entered India and were granted resettlement in Arunachal Pradesh and Indian citizenship. The North-Eastern region is home to illegal infiltration problem and has gone through anti-immigrant movements in Assam.
Afghan refugees numbering over 60,000 came to India in 1979-80 during the Soviet-Afghan War. Again about 15,000 Afghans, mostly Hindus and Sikhs, fleeing from Taliban regime arrived and settled around Delhi. Nomadic Pashtuns from Pakistan settled themselves in the Kashmir Valley.
Sri Lankan Tamils numbering in lakhs, fleeing from Sri Lankan military operations, have arrived in southern India and are living in refugee camps in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. Having strong linguistic and social ties with Tamils in India, this group, a creation of Sri Lanka’s internal politics, is affecting Union-State relations in India.
The biggest protection to refugees comes from the judiciary and advisories from the Government of India. A model law was drafted in 2002, but did not pass through the legislative process. The Foreigner’s Act, 1946 amended in 2004 penalises entry into the country without valid documents thus permitting deportation of refugees. Moral and humanitarian restraint seems to be than formal legislations.
However, a law to govern refugees will also create problems as situations differ and humanitarian considerations vary making application of uniform legal prescriptions irrational and impracticable. Law cannot solve all humanitarian issues. A judicious combination of human rights issue, national interests, international relations, and universal outlook is required in dealing with refugee problem.
Refugee crisis in European nations in recent times has led to some drastic legislations which are inconsistent with UN principles. Denmark, for instance, passed a law allowing the authorities to confiscate valuables from the refugees to cover the cost of their rehabilitation.
Fear of infiltration of terrorists as refugees cannot be ruled out. France tightened its emergency laws. Indiscriminate policing was unleashed in many countries. Several countries including Germany have been constantly monitoring refugee status in their national interests. Refugee status, like natural disaster, may fall on anybody. It cannot be prevented by individual intelligence or tact. In the prevailing international context, refugees of internal conflict number more than war-time refugees. They also steadily grow in number and infiltrate silently.
The problem of Bangladesh today may be more serious than that of India. But, it will take no time to spread further into our country. India has to guard against countries trying to grab our territory and send us refugees. Refugee influx coupled with foreign illegal occupation of our territory is a double edged sword that cannot be allowed. Such a situation will automatically nullify any law protecting refugees, for territorial integrity comes first for any nation. — INFA