Need For A Refugee Law In India

According to the estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), presently there are more than 60 million refugees worldwide. India currently hosts more than 32,000 refugees who were facing violence and severe prosecution in several countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, China, Somalia, etc. In addition, India has 1,75,000 long-staying refugees from Sri Lanka and Tibet who have been given asylum over decades.

The most common reasons for refugee crises are war, domestic violence, human trafficking, natural disasters, environmental displacement and climate change. With increasing occurrence of the above causes, the number of refugees will continue to grow. India will also witness increasing fresh arrivals of refugees.

Legal and Policy Framework Around Refugees in India

While India has been human and generous towards refugees, the country has signed neither the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention nor its 1967 Protocol.

India does not have a refugee law also. The term “refugee” is nowhere mentioned in any domestic laws of India.

Since India does not have any specific laws to deal with refugees, the policy has been traditionally based on a combination of judicial pronouncements and ad hoc executive policies. In India, the law that deals with entry and exit of foreign nationals is the Foreigners Act, 1946. It does not recognise refugees as a special category needing humanitarian protection. The process of deciding who is a refugee is also unclear. While the Indian government deals with asylum-seekers from Tibet and Sri Lanka, the office of UNHCR in New Delhi deals with asylum-seekers from other countries.

India’s contentions with Refugee convention

The reasons for India’s refusal to accede to the Convention or the Protocol are mainly security-related. When a country signs the UN Refugee Convention or 1967 Protocol related to the Status of Refugees, it undertakes to apply the 34 rights and freedoms granted to refugees in the Refugee Convention.

  • Since the borders in South Asia are extremely porous, any conflict or war-like situation would result in mass inflow of refugees. This would put pressure on local infrastructure and resources and India may not be to handle the refugees in large numbers. It can also upset the demographic balance in the country.
  • According to some scholars, India has adopted a sceptical outlook towards the political or non-humanitarian role of the UNHCR, owing to the uncooperative stance demonstrated by the UNHCR during the Bangladesh crisis of 1971.
  • Another reason for India’s refusal to sign the Convention is that the rights that are incorporated within the Convention for refugees are entirely impractical for Third World countries like India, which can barely meet the needs and requirements of its own citizens.

What are issues of concern for refugees?

There are various issues concerning the refugees and are need to be taken care by the host country. They are:

  • Mass migrations and asylum applications,
  • Naturalization of refugees,
  • Registration of new-arrival refugees,
  • Residence permits,
  • Renewal of refugee certificates,
  • Deportations,
  • Ethnic/ racial discrimination against refugees.

What is the need for a law on refugees?

India’s ad hoc policy has led to inconsistency in dealing with refugees of different nationalities. The refugee policy, on the whole, lacks uniformity. There is need for creation of a uniform law by consolidation of various policies that are applicable to refugees in India. The refugee law should reflect India’s historic leading role in providing shelter to refugees and it should also codify the rights and duties of refugees in India. An autonomous National Commission must also be set up to assess and determine claims for any asylum in India. The refugee law will also help the enforcement authorities through clear guidelines, so that fewer refugees will be unlawfully detained for “illegal entry”. By putting in place a refugee policy, all refugees in the country will be given an opportunity for a fair hearing. By legitimizing their stay in India, the refugee law will allow refugees to overcome their past trauma, and helps them to become contributing members of society during their stay in India.