In August, the Ministry of Home Affairs directed state authorities to identify and deport Rohingya refugees from Myanmar as part of a larger drive to weed out “illegal immigrants”. Kiren Rijiju, minister of state in the ministry, referred to even the Rohingya refugees registered under the UNHCR—the UN refugee agency—as illegal immigrants. The government further raised concerns over a tipping demographic balance in India through illegal immigration, and took an unnecessarily alarmist line on the issue. Subsequently, when the decision came under fire from human rights organizations, Rijiju went on to incorrectly claim that since India has absorbed the highest number of refugees in the world, nobody had the right to give it lessons on how to deal with the situation.
Under renewed threat for the past few months from the Myanmar military, which is carrying out anti-insurgency operations in Rakhine State (where most Rohingya in that country reside), the Rohingya are in a truly unfortunate situation. Denied citizenship for decades by the military junta and now Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in Myanmar, the Rohingya are classified as the largest stateless group anywhere in the world. A return to violence-ridden Rakhine State would mean sending these refugees in the way of imminent harm.
The Rohingya have been escaping this systematic persecution for decades through perilous sea journeys, or undertaking dangerous land border crossings to neighbouring countries and beyond. Malaysia is estimated to host ~150,000 Rohingya. In contrast, India has an estimated total of only 40,000 Rohingya of which ~16,000 have been formally registered as refugees with the UNHCR. The greatest burden in the neighbourhood has fallen on significantly poorer Bangladesh, which is home to more than half-a-million Rohingya refugees as of last year. In fact, the brutal Myanmar army crackdown in Rakhine has resulted in new Rohingya arrivals increasing to ~250,000 (quarter of the total Rohingya population). While the numbers are truly alarming, they only mirror the outsized burden that developing and least developed countries have faced since the onset of the modern refugee crisis.
The onset of the Syrian civil war placed issues of hosting refugees in an unprecedented global spotlight. While the politics of hosting in Western nations has captured media headlines, the refugee situation has festered on in places that seldom share the same spotlight—the developing world.
As per UNHCR data, 22.5 million people were refugees by the end of 2016. Of this, a staggering 14.5 million people were hosted in developing countries, that is, ~7 out of every 10 refugees. Furthermore, a mind-boggling one in every third refugee was hosted in countries classified as “least developed”, with per capita incomes lower than ~$1,035, or six times as poor as India.
The list of top refugee-hosting countries makes this point clearer (chart below).
As seen, every country on the list is either a low- or a middle-income country. A quick analysis of the country of origin of their dominant refugee population unsurprisingly reveals that they belong to neighbouring countries. In the medium term, the situation in these countries is unlikely to get better.
Refugees from Afghanistan are returning home from Pakistan and Iran, albeit at an extremely slow pace. The flow of refugees from Syria, as the civil war reaches its bloody end, is at best expected to slow down, with limited possibility of any resettlement whatsoever. South Sudan at the moment is in deep throes of a civil war between various factions without a lasting solution in sight. This has led to it being the country with the fastest-growing refugee exodus last year, with the number almost doubling from 2015 to 2016 to stand at 1.4 million. Compared to the stress faced by countries neighbouring these centres of conflict, India has largely escaped the brunt of the modern refugee crisis—its protestations against the Rohingya notwithstanding.
As per the latest UNHCR estimates, India had ~200,000 refugees, making it the 25th-largest refugee-hosting country. While the countries hosting more refugees than India include the US, Germany, France and Sweden, 10 out of these 24 nations are in Africa and a further nine are in Asia. The data essentially shows the abdication of the larger and richer countries in sharing the burden of the refugee crisis. A telling statistic of this disparity is that Ethiopia, a country four times as poor as India, is hosting four times the number of refugees. This disparity only gets worse when we compare it to the OECD nations.
The refugee crisis has also placed a significant demographic and economic burden on the largest host countries. Lebanon, with a small population of ~6 million people, has been demographically overwhelmed. As of end of 2016, one in every six people in Lebanon was a refugee. A significant burden is also shared by other top host countries, notably Uganda and Turkey (which are globally third and sixth, respectively, in this metric). In comparison, India only has one refugee for every 6,500 people—a remarkably low number.
Apart from the demographic burden, refugees also place an outsized economic burden on host countries. Due to the protracted nature of civil wars, there is a significant uncertainty about refugee resettlement periods. Chalking up the overall size of the host country’s economy to the size of the refugee population shows the economic resources that may be available to meet the needs of the refugee population.
Comparing incomes of host countries standardized for purchasing power parity, we see that for every $1 million (PPP), countries such as Lebanon, Uganda and Ethiopia are bearing an outsized economic burden. As mentioned before, the greatest economic burden of hosting refugees is being borne by the world’s poorest countries. Examples here include Chad, Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda—all in global top 10 by this metric. In fact, eight out of 10 nations hosting the most refugees relative to the size of their national economies were in Africa.
The refugee situation in India
India is not a signatory to 1951 UN Refugee Convention, or its 1967 Protocol. Thus, it is not technically obligated to provide rights set out in the convention to refugees. As a result, India has taken decisions on granting long-term visas to refugees essentially on an ad-hoc basis, following customary international law. To make the settlement of refugees more systematic, the government proposed amending the Citizenship Act 1955, which would make it easier for minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to get citizenship.
However, the amendment does not lay out the rights of minorities from other countries (such as Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar), leading to the current impasse. A solution lies in a comprehensive framework drawing out the rights of refugees in India along with the terms of their settlement, and providing clarity on the question of resettlement; it is important to honour the principle of “non-refoulement”, which asserts that refugees should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.
For now, a quick look at data shows that the government’s stated concern about the demographic balance tipping is unfounded. Hosting the Rohingya would place, at best, only a trivial economic burden on it. Indeed, significantly poorer countries share a much larger burden.
The fate of the Rohingya in India now lies with the Supreme Court, which is hearing a plea against their deportation on several grounds, including violation of international human rights conventions. One hopes that for the sake of innocent lives, a right moral choice is made.
Romit Mehta works in international development. Views are personal
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