New Delhi's policy on refugees is proof of moral weakness
It says something about the state of the subcontinent that India is a comparative sea of calm, and for nearly 200,000 refugees, India is a safe haven from oppression. However, India's refusal to sign the UN convention on refugee rights and its more baffling failure to establish a national refugee law has created gulfs in the network of protection for refugees.
The latest example has been the much publicised plight of the Rohingyas people from northern Myanmar, who in recent weeks have amassed in New Delhi to lobby for refugee status. Police responded by forcibly evicting the protesters.
Predominantly Muslim, the Rohingyas had fled persecution by the military in Myanmar. They are viewed with suspicion by the majority Buddhist population in Myanmar, largely because militant Rohingyas have been recruited to Harakat ul Jihad Al Islami, which has alleged Al Qaeda links.
As a result, they are largely stateless, and denied passports. Their mosques are boarded up or saddled with crippling taxes. Boys and girls are denied entrance to universities. Like other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, they are required to sign up for permits to get married.
Whether the potential terror threat is the driving purpose behind India's continued denial of refugee status to these people is unknown. But in the absence of any legal obligation to adjudicate the asylum claims of immigrants, India can simply wash its hands of the problem.
Tibetans and Sri Lankan Tamils form the overwhelming majority of India's refugee population. The Indian government has granted legal status to some of these refugees, but many fall under the jurisdiction of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The reason India gives for the use of the UNHCR is that the organisation is better equipped to process refugee claims. In fact, New Delhi only steps in when the number of refugees reaches the point where the state's bureaucratic prowess is required. Thus India grants refugee status to Tamils, of which there are tens of thousands living on Indian soil, but not to the few thousand from Myanmar.
The end result is a situation where refugees from different states are accorded different rights and - in the case of the Myanmarese and other refugees from countries such as Iraq, Iran and Somalia - no certainty regarding their future right to live in India. Their right to stay in India is based on a refugee status granted by the UNHCR, which the Indian government is under no obligation to uphold, as well as legal precedent based on two articles in the Indian constitution. Asylum seekers can and have won the right to stay on in India in court. They ought not have to go that far.
India often pleads poverty when pressed to sign onto various international treaties. And with over half of its population living below the poverty line, it has a point. If India can barely feed itself, how can it be expected to feed refugees, too?
But India uses its lack of development as a shield against legitimate criticisms as well. It leaves the duty to process refugee claims of the Myanmarese to the UNHCR because that is easier. Meanwhile, it ignores claims from international organisations that there are many more refugees from Myanmar living illegally in north-east India.
The potential existence of so many undocumented refugees creates huge problems for a region already divided by tribal and ethnic rivalries. The north-east has witnessed several ugly incidents of violence by groups protesting against the incursion of some group or another into their ancestral territory.
The reasons India chooses to ignore refugees from Myanmar may be political. Since the mid-1990s India has been cosying up to the generals in Myanmar. The same motivations may explain why Tibetans receive comparatively princely treatment from the Indian government. India hosts the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, thorns in China's side and an ace in India's negotiations with its larger neighbour.
But the Tibetans also show the danger in India's failure to hold itself accountable for the security and safety of the country's refugee population. As Indo-Chinese relations have warmed, so relations between the Tibetan people and India have cooled. If India had possessed a legal framework for the rights of refugees, the Tibetans may not have been accorded the host of benefits and political capital they now enjoy. They would not, however, risk losing what they had gained should India abandon them and embrace China.
That example is extreme, but Myanmarese refugees have a real and legitimate fear that their right to reside in India could disappear should the democratic reforms in their home country lead India and the rest of the world to forget the threat posed to ethnic and religious minorities there. This is especially true of the Rohingyas, who have been tarred with the brush of being Islamic extremists.
It is true that India has opened its doors to refugees since the country's incarnation, when millions from what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh fled across the border. But India must begin to hold itself accountable for the well-being of those people it has tacitly agreed to safeguard. At the very least, it must set up a formal framework to deal with refugee claims so that asylum seekers have legally guaranteed rights.
What is clear is that India's decision to ignore the problem when convenient is creating more problems for itself and laying additional burdens on people who came to India looking for succour.
Sean McLain is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi and a former feature writer for The National
Published: June 7, 2012 04:00 AM