Blog post written by Dr Nafees Ahmad (South Asian University).

The UN has declared the contemporary refugee crises in many parts of the world  – including India, its South Asian neighbours and broader region – as the worst humanitarian crisis of the world. 68.5 million people worldwide are currently displaced, and they are desperately in need of aid and assistance of humanitarian nature. Therefore, India once again encounters a question as to how it should respond to the world refugee crisis, particularly in its vicinity of the second tenure of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government that has been preparing its hundred days’ agenda of governance priorities in every department. India can no longer afford to continue its calculated silence on refugee issues as it remains on the Executive Committee (EXCOM) of the UNHCR since 1995. Thus, now is the time for India to evolve and formulate a sustainable refugee policy even in the absence of national refugee law to guide its response to future refugee crises.

Historically, India has been a melting pot for different cultures and civilisations and has been active in addressing humanitarian crises that include the reception of refugees fleeing persecution from many parts of the world. However, the current socio-political environment for refugees and the reception capacity of India pose several challenges. In India, during 2014-2019, there has been an emergence of the most conspicuous far-right brand of nationalism that has created humanitarian fatigue, particularly following the arrival of thousands of Rohingya refugees. In India, state-tolerated actors have successfully created a hostile climate for refugees’ particularly in the North-Eastern parts of the country dealing with irregular cross-border migration. I argue that India should rather treat refugee populations as an asset instead of regarding them as a drain on national resources, and I set out a number of proposals below as a means to do so.

The vision of humanitarian commitments and international human rights obligations of the government of India requires bringing in line the volatile intergovernmental tensions, mutable public perception, and religion-driven administrative apparatus. India can respond to the refugee crisis by adopting a geo-strategic approach and could extend temporary protection to refugees based on the experiences of EU countries’ initiative of resettling Syrian refugees in Europe. India has not acceded to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and (UNCSR) along with its 1967 Additional Protocol, nor does it have a national law for refugee protection. India boasts of adhering to the principle of non-refoulement and securing refugee protection under the holistic and liberal construction of Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Further, India continues to host the largest refugee population in South Asia after Bangladesh. Despite this, India extends protection to refugees since 1947 based on an ad hoc administrative structure and policy that suffers from political selectivism. Such an ill-conceived policy creates conditions for the human right abuses of refugees and deprivation of basic needs and discrimination between refugees groups themselves.

Thus, India does not have a formal refugee policy and nobody knows its contours. India’s refugee policy initiative should be based on a comprehensive strategy for refugees mirroring best-practice principles from around the world. I have developed a structure for such policy which I have conceived as ‘R3I’ – reception, repatriation, resettlement, integration. This framework will only be successful if refugees are received in different locations and holistically profiled and assessed to crystalize refugee status determination (RSD) procedures adhering to the global human rights norm of non-refoulement and providing rights and protections as outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Such a measure would enhance India’s international stature and ensure better support for the socio-economic future of refugees within the country. Similarly, the role of the private individuals, households, local communities, NGOs and civil society institutions should also be proactively located and institutionalized in assisting voluntary hosting of refugees and protecting their rights and obligations in the country of reception. Thus, the institution of voluntarism can be highlighted as an option to protect refugees without incurring any financial liability on the host state or squeezing of state resources.

The proposed R3I policy would incorporate the following initiatives to ensure its success:

  • A national refugee agency (NRA) must be emplaced to compile comprehensive profiles and credentials of the migrants, immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees immediately upon their arrivals in India so that NRA could coordinate with other NGOs and civil society institutions regarding their needs of housing, medical aid, safety and exploring job opportunities for them, etc.These profiles and credentials should include educational qualifications, technical skills, language proficiencies, family composition and other significant relevant data in line with Common European Asylum System (CEAS) and EURODAC system for collecting refugee information. Ensuring a proper understanding of the needs and assets of the refugees will ensure that resources are allocated appropriately and will facilitate their timely R3I solution in the host country;
  • Options for private sponsorship of refugees should be developed in parallel to government systems in light of the success of such schemes in the Global North. Such schemes often result in better settlement and employment outcomes for refugees and ease the financial burden on government resources;
  • Refugees must be supported in learning both the Hindi and English languages to remove bottlenecks for employment and psychological wellness and a successful R3I solution for refugees. This is particularly important for refugee women who often struggle to access medical, education and childcare facilities due to language barriers.

India celebrates more than five thousand years of humanitarian leadership and governance. The history of India is full of examples of hosting persons fleeing war, conflict, and persecution. A sustainable refugee policy is a necessary step to continue this tradition of hospitality and to understand and appreciate the needs and problems of refugees in India. However India, as an emerging global player of international politics, must initiate a dialogue in the country to shift the focus from religion-driven refugee policy to diversity-driven refugee policy in its political discourse. Therefore, a sustainable refugee policy requires the engagement of different types of stakeholders and actors. These are primarily the Government of India (GoI) and UNHCR but may also include NGOs and other members of refugee advocacy groups and the research institutions.

The GoI remains the principal political and legal entity as a relevant actor to address the refugee issues in the country. International organizations such as UNHCR, have been playing a more proactive role at all stages of the policy process in many countries and, therefore, the GoI should also integrate them into its policy structure. Likewise, NGOs can influence the policy process, mostly in their attempts to raise issues on the policy agenda and in advocating improvements to current policies. In the case of the global refugee regime, NGOs are also central to the implementation stage of strategy as functional or implementing partners of governments and UNHCR. The GoI must not filibuster anymore on refugee issues and it must re-conceive its refugee policy paralysis in conformity with best practice from around the world. 

The key to India’s sustainable refugee policy includes a bottom-up approach based on comprehensive evaluations of employment opportunities for refugees, utilization of their skills in national development, creating stability in the public attitudes towards them, and ensuring the support of state governments and private sponsors, voluntary organizations, NGOs and civil society organizations. The current refugee crisis presents an opportunity to India to better calibrate its sustainable refugee policy for the future that accrues benefits for India and Indians alike. Moreover, such initiatives at the national level will bring domestic support for acceding to the UNCSR and global understanding as has been agreed upon in the Global Compact on Refugees on December 19, 2018, that is bound to make India more progressive and prosperous.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.

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