The refugee crisis arising from the Syrian conflict is only the latest reminder of the fact that India remains one of the few liberal democracies not to have signed, supported or ratified the international convention that governs how nations should treat distressed people who are forced to leave their homes under harrowing conditions.
Refugee crises may be caused by any number of reasons but the most common are war (Bangladesh), domestic conflicts (Tibet, Sri Lanka), natural disasters (famine), environmental displacement, human trafficking and—this one will turn up at all our doorsteps soon—climate change.
India has signed neither the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention nor its 1967 Protocol, which has 140 signatories, an overwhelming majority of the world’s 190-odd nations. However, India continues to host a large population of refugees. In the main, they are treated kindly.
Clearly, India has stood up and been counted when it comes to accepting refugees. It has one of the biggest refugee populations in South Asia. But it is precisely the large numbers that enjoin upon India the duty to enshrine in law how these refugees will be treated. In the absence of any domestic law or regional South Asian framework, India has desisted from taking its rightful regional leadership role in this increasingly critical matter.
Why won’t India sign the Convention or the Protocol? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) won’t officially say why, but the reasons are chiefly security-related. The line of argument is that borders in South Asia are extremely porous and any conflict can result in a mass movement of people. This can have two results: first, a strain on local infrastructure and resources in countries that are poorly equipped to deal with sudden spikes in population.
Second, it can upset the demographic balance, a tinderbox in South Asia.
Another argument is that India already does its duty, so where’s the need to sign this piece of paper? It mostly doesn’t even take UN money to look after the refugees.
India is home to diverse groups of refugees, ranging from Buddhist Chakmas from the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, to Bhutanese from Nepal, Muslim Rohinygas from Myanmar and small populations from Somalia, Sudan and other sub Saharan African countries. According to the UNHCR, there were 204,600 refugees, asylum seekers and “others of concern" in India in 2011. They were made up of 13,200 people from Afghanistan, 16,300 from Myanmar, 2,100 from various other countries and the two older populations of around 100,000 Tibetans and 73,000 Sri Lankan Tamils. The UNHCR financially assisted 31,600 of them.
A third reason offered by some scholars is that India retains a degree of scepticism about the UNHCR. This apparently flows from the Bangladesh war of 1971.
At the time, UNHCR played a stellar role in helping devise India’s administrative response to the 9.8 million Hindu refugees who poured in from Bangladesh. It also helped to mobilize huge international finances to pay for Indian bills (and it wasn’t even the West’s war). And when it came to repatriation of the refugees, then again the UNHCR helped roll out an orderly return journey.
But India was upset that the UNHCR began talking about the need for repatriation of refugees—something India had emphasized from the very start of the Bangladesh crisis—only in June 1971, just around the time Pakistani atrocities were causing millions more to flee to India. New Delhi felt talk of repatriation at that particular point in time gave the wrong signals to the world.
Additionally, India was far from pleased by a visit to Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) by the UNHCR high commissioner, Sadruddin Agha Khan, on the invitation of Pakistani president Yahya Khan. This was seen as an endorsement of Pakistani propaganda that its eastern territory was normal.
So what would ratifying the Convention mean for India? Would it be better or worse off for signing it? I believe pitching your lot with other liberal democracies on an important ethical and humanitarian issue can only be to India’s good. But there will be many commitments India will have to take on.
For instance, it will be bound by law not to repatriate a single refugee against their will. It’s known as the non-refoulement principle—no forcible repatriation. According to academic Shreya Sen, a researcher on South Asian issues, India in any case is bound by this principle because it is contained in the 1984 Convention against torture, to which India is a signatory.
Article 3 of the Torture Convention states: “No state party shall expel, return (refouler) or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture."
It’s not as if India habitually forcibly repatriates refugees—indeed it is commended for its restraint. However, back in the late 1980s, and then following the assassination of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, a large number of Sri Lankan Tamils were repatriated from camps in Tamil Nadu. There has never been any evidence this was forced repatriation, but some academics and refugee workers think it was a blot on India’s record.
Where problems have arisen in the absence of any policy framework on the treatment of refugees is when vulnerable refugees try to find work or when they are exploited by unscrupulous businessmen because they remain unintegrated.
In 1985, working as a reporter in India, I helped unearth a settlement of bonded labourers in Tamil Nadu made up entirely of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. They had been put to work in a vast rubber plantation located in a forest, around half-a-day’s walk from the nearest bus stop in the scenic Western Ghats.
Guided by a machete-wielding sadhu, who certainly knew his way around the forest, I didn’t expect to see what I did—a slave camp. Hundreds of Tamils ran out of the settlement, mistaking us for humanitarian workers bringing supplies of water and food—it had been raining. It was a shocking moment.
Powerful vested interests were at work here. The local Indian Administrative Services officer, an uncompromising Sikh, carried a gun in his car.
In 2015, amid the biggest refugee crisis in the West since World War II, none of the reasons listed above justifies India’s continuing refusal to sign the Refugee Convention. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is fond of quoting ancient Sanskrit sayings: one of them is Atithi Devo Bhava. Guests are like God.