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Why India is home to millions of refugees but doesn’t have a policy for them

 

India is home to millions of refugees

A refugee train in Punjab, during Partition | Commons

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.

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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.

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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.

READ ALSO: The child refugees risking the Channel by boat – one year on

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.

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.

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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.

(theprint.in)

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Netherlands, IOM launch Global Migration Initiative to protect people on the move

COMPASS will provide vulnerable migrants including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children access to a broad range of protection and assistance services.

 The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands launched the Cooperation on Migration and Partnerships for Sustainable Solutions initiative (COMPASS) at the beginning of 2021. COMPASS is a global initiative, in partnership with 12 countries, designed to protect people on the move, combat human trafficking and smuggling, and support dignified return while promoting sustainable reintegration.

The initiative is centred on a whole-of-society approach which, in addition to assisting individuals, will work across all levels – households, communities, and the wider communities – and encompasses the following partner countries: Afghanistan, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia.

“We want to mobilize families, peers and communities to encourage informed and safe migration decisions, protect migrants, and help those returning home reintegrate successfully,” said Monica Goracci, Director of the Department of Migration Management at IOM.

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“One key component is also undermining the trafficking and smuggling business models through the promotion of safe alternatives and information sharing to reduce the risks of exploitation and abuse by these criminal networks.” Vulnerable migrants, including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children, will have access to a broad range of protection and assistance services such as mental health and psychosocial support, while migrants in transit who wish to return home will be supported with dignified return and reintegration.

Community level interventions will focus on improving community-led efforts to address trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, and support sustainable reintegration of returning migrants. COMPASS will work with national and local governments to enable a conducive environment for migrant protection, migration management and international cooperation on these issues.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pleased to launch the COMPASS programme in cooperation with IOM, an important and longstanding partner on migration cooperation,” said Marriët Schuurman, Director for Stability and Humanitarian Aid of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

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“The programme is a part of the Dutch comprehensive approach to migration with activities that contribute to protection and decreasing irregular migration. Research and data gathering are also important components, and we hope that the insights that will be gained under COMPASS will contribute to broader knowledge sharing on migration and better-informed migration policies.”, added Schuurman. The initiative has a strong learning component, designed to increase knowledge and the uptake of lessons learned, both within the programme and beyond its parameters. COMPASS will actively contribute to global knowledge that supports countries in managing migration flows and protecting vulnerable migrants such as victims of trafficking. The implementation of COMPASS is set to start soon.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, as the donor to the COMPASS initiative, pledges its active support to partner countries to improve migration cooperation mechanisms within its long-term vision. 

IOM, the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration, contributes its expertise as the technical implementation partner to the initiative. IOM works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners in its dedication to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all. 

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A child, 40 others drown in shipwreck off Tunisia

Photo: Mediterranean Sea

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are deeply saddened by reports of a shipwreck off the coast of Sidi Mansour, in southeast Tunisia, yesterday evening. The bodies of 41 people, including at least one child, have so far been retrieved.

According to reports from local UNHCR and IOM teams, three survivors were rescued by the Tunisian National Coast Guard. The search effort was still underway on Friday. Based on initial information, all those who perished were from Sub-Saharan Africa.

This tragic loss of life underscores once again the need to enhance and expand State-led search and rescue operations across the Central Mediterranean, where some 290 people have lost their lives so far this year. Solidarity across the region and support to national authorities in their efforts to prevent loss of life and prosecute smugglers and traffickers should be a priority.

Prior to yesterday’s incident, 39 refugees and migrants had perished off the coast near the Tunisian city of Sfax in early March. So far this year, sea departures from Tunisia to Europe have more than tripled compared to the same period in 2020.

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UNHCR and IOM continue to monitor developments closely. They continue to stand ready to work with the national authorities to assist and support the survivors, and the family members of those lost.

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Ethiopian migrants return home from Yemen with IOM support in wake of tragic boat sinking

Yemen: Stranded Ethiopian migrants prepare to board an IOM-facilitated flight from Aden, Yemen, to fly home to Addis Ababa. Photo: IOM/Majed Mohammed 2021

One hundred and sixty Ethiopian migrants have returned home safely from Yemen today with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), just one day after a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden claimed the lives of dozens of people, including at least 16 children.

More than 32,000 migrants, predominantly from Ethiopia, remain stranded across Yemen in dire, often deadly, circumstances.

“The conditions of migrants stranded in Yemen has become so tragic that many feel they have no option but to rely on smugglers to return home,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, IOM’s Director for Operations and Emergencies.

At least 42 people returning from Yemen are believed to have died on Monday when their vessel sank off the coast of Djibouti. Last month, at least 20 people had also drowned on the same route according to survivors. IOM believes that, since May 2020, over 11,000 migrants have returned to the Horn of Africa on dangerous boat journeys, aided by unscrupulous smugglers.

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“Our Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme provides a lifeline for those stranded in a country now experiencing its seventh year of conflict and crisis. We call on all governments along the route to come together and support our efforts to allow migrants safe and dignified opportunities to travel home,” added Labovitz.

COVID-19 has had a major impact on global migration. The route from the Horn of Africa to Gulf countries has been particularly affected. Tens of thousands of migrants, hoping to work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), now find themselves unable to complete their journeys, stranded across Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen.

While the pandemic has also caused the number of migrants arriving to Yemen to decrease from 138,000 in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020, the risks they face continue to rise. Many of these migrants are stranded in precarious situations, sleeping rough without shelter or access to services. Many others are in detention or being held by smugglers.

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“We cannot find jobs or food here; Yemen is a problem for us,” said Gamal, a 22-year-old migrant returning on the VHR flight. “I used to sleep in the street on cardboard. I could only eat because of the charity people would give me and sometimes we were given leftovers from restaurants. I never had much to eat.”

Since October 2020, in Aden alone, IOM has registered over 6,000 migrants who need support to safely return home. Today’s flight to Addis Ababa was the second transporting an initial group of 1,100 Ethiopians who have been approved for VHR to Ethiopia. Thousands of other undocumented migrants are waiting for their nationality to be verified and travel documents to be provided.

Prior to departure on the VHR flight, IOM carried out medical and protection screenings to ensure that returnees are fit to travel and are voluntarily consenting to return. Those with special needs are identified and receive specialized counselling and support.

In Ethiopia, IOM supports government-run COVID-19 quarantine facilities to accommodate the returnees on arrival and provides cash assistance, essential items and onward transportation to their homes. The Organization also supports family tracing for unaccompanied migrant children.

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Across the Horn of Africa and Yemen, IOM provides life-saving support to migrants through health care, food, water and other vital assistance.

Today’s flight was funded by the US State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). Post-arrival assistance in Addis Ababa is supported by EU Humanitarian Aid and PRM.

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