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Fragmented protection and precarious justice: Refugee experiences in India

Globus Justice Blog
By Professor  

In India, the current ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is attempting to pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill (2016). The Bill sets a worrying communalised tone to the refugee debate, regardless of the government’s intentions, writes Dr. Jessica Field from O.P. Jindal Global University.


India is a country born out of mass migration. The division and independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 saw millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims moving en masse to urban centres like Delhi, seeking relief and rehabilitation after a large-scale population exchange agreement between the two new countries. Since then, India has played a prominent regional role as host to the persecuted from beyond its borders. From 1959, the country has hosted hundreds of thousands of Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, who have fled Tibet in reaction to violence and in protest at China’s control of the area. In 1971 India welcomed 10 million East Bengali refugees during Bangladesh’s independence war from Pakistan – the largest scale movement to date of refugees over such a short space of time. And at present, the country officially hosts over 200,000 refugees (though the number is likely to be far higher as a significant number of de facto refugees do not register themselves) from a range of countries. This group includes a significant proportion of Rohingyas who have fled recent and historic ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, and countless Afghans who have escaped the protracted war in Afghanistan. India’s regional role as an important destination of refuge cannot be disputed – nor can its record of welcome for many groups in times of crisis. However, this protection is not always guaranteed and, depending on which refugee group you belong to and when you arrive, it is worryingly variable.

Unequal treatment

We have recently completed a year-long study looking at the experiences of protection and assistance that Muslim Rohingya, and Sikh and Christian Afghan refugees have had in Delhi. One of our key findings is that the legal recognition and humanitarian assistance that refugees receive is heavily influenced by wider national, regional and international politics.


Nationally, refugees are offered limited legal recognition, with Tibetans and Sri Lankans being the only groups officially recognised by the Government of India as refugees. Other groups – such as Afghans, some groups from Myanmar, and Somalians – are permitted the right to remain and to receive support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but the ambiguity over their legal and residency status affects their ability to find jobs, rent homes, and attend schools and hospitals. Moreover, ethno-religious politics are fuelling resentment over India’s role as host to some of these groups. The Citizenship Amendment Bill (2016) seeks to extend citizenship application rights to many refugee groups, but the line drawn over who is eligible is ethno-religious and linked to regional politics, as it only applies to “persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan”. Running alongside discussions over this Bill are attempts by the government to deport tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees as “illegal immigrants” who, they argue, potentially threaten the security of the country. This has resulted in arbitrary evictionsof long-settled and refugee card-holding Rohingyas from their homes in Jaipur, and is tacitly legitimising a growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. Moreover, it is making other refugee groups incredibly nervous as to their right to remain in India in the long term. These politically-fuelled troubles are in addition to the daily struggles refugees face trying to maintain a regular income and keep food on the table, as their employment options – if they exist at all – are mainly in the precarious informal economy.

Keeping the UNHCR at arm's length

International support for refugees is very limited, too. India has, to certain degrees, kept UNHCR at arm’s length since it opened a branch office in the country in 1969, despite joining UNHCR’s Executive in 1995. As well as not being a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, India experienced a strained relationship with UNHCR throughout the 1970s, when it saw the organisation as unduly politicised. While UNHCR currently enjoys a good working relationship with the government, the organisation does not have its own branch office agreement with them (instead having to work through UNDP), and its access to other areas where refugees are residing, such as Mizoram in the North East, is restricted. These constraints, along with broader institutional funding cuts across UNHCR globally, have severely hampered the organisation’s ability to gain a full picture of the protection gaps nationally. This has consequently limited its ability to extend protection and humanitarian services to the extent and regions they are needed.

There is no chance of India signing up to the 1951 Refugee Convention any time soon, and to a certain degree, this is a moot point given the number of other signatory countries that have undermined their protection commitments in recent years. It certainly would not guarantee protection and justice for refugees in India, which has long denounced international interference in domestic issues. An alternative would be an Indian law – one that capitalises on the country’s distinctive refugee history – and moves have certainly been made in that direction. On 18 December 2015, three private member’s bills were introduced to the Lok Sabha, India’s parliament, on the issue of national refugee protection and asylum: Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP, and previous-Under Secretary General of the United Nations for Communications and Public Information introduced the ‘Asylum Bill’ 2015; Feroze Varun Gandhi, an MP of the BJP introduced the ‘National Asylum Bill’ 2015, and Rabindra Kumar Jena, MP of the Biju Janata Dal Party, introduced ‘The Protection of Refugees and Asylum Seekers Bill’, 2015.  Though none has yet been passed, their introduction exemplifies a growing (cross-party) national dialogue around issues of forced migration and asylum. However, these possibilities for protection are far off, and feel somewhat removed from the everyday difficulties that refugees face making lives and livelihoods in India’s cities, towns and villages.

The most immediate safety nets and protection possibilities are coming from civil society organisations, such as The Migration and Asylum Project (an all-women forced migration legal aid and research organisation based in Delhi), and initiatives started by refugees themselves, such as Khalsa Diwan (a Sikh Afghan refugee organisation that offers a range of support services to its community). Nonetheless, such initiatives are often centred in urban hubs, such as Delhi, and struggle with funding under ever-tightening government controls over foreign donations and concern among private donors that there are more pressing domestic poverty and human rights issues to deal with.

As a stable and vibrant democracy, India will continue to be a refuge for people fleeing violence and persecution. It is clear that more needs to be done at the highest levels to recognise the rights of refugees and prevent them getting into the legal no-man’s-land in which many currently find themselves, and also to change the communalised tone of the conversation around refugee protection. But there is a clear lack of political will at a national level.  Further, there is a lack of inclusion of South Asian experiences of displacement in the global discourse on refugee protection, with Europe and the Middle East often dominating international coverage and research. In this vacuum, refugees and asylum seekers across India are ignored or excluded, and are consequently forced to build their own ad hoc safety nets, with limited resources and no guarantees of sustainability. Such realities only serve to exacerbate the risks faced by an already incredibly vulnerable population.

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Sen, S (2003) 'Paradoxes of the International Regime of Care: The Role of UNHCR in India', in R. Samaddar (ed.) Refugees and the State: Practices of Asylum and Care in India 1947–2000, New Delhi: Sage.