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We Have Been Systematically Led To Believe That Refugees Are National Security Threats

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“We are the boat returning to dock;
we are the footprints on the northern trail,
We are the iron colouring the soil,
We cannot be erased. ”
—From “Refugee”, by Remi Kanazi

Throughout the world there are large groups of people with no homes of their own, caught between danger in the land they know and loss of identity in an alien land. Bombs dropping on their houses and the fear of persecution has forced millions to flee their homes and seek safety in unfamiliar societies. Here they are isolated, ‘different’, made to feel incompetent, and often impoverished. They are largely at the mercy of the host state.

Today, there are around 68 million refugees globally—including asylum seekers, irregular migrants, returnees, and internally displaced persons (IDPs). More than 200,000 refugees are living in India. They are a diverse group, from all continents and regions of the world, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Congo, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and more. At present, there are over 100,000 Tibetans and over 90,000 Sri Lankans (two of our immediate neighbouring countries) who have fled violence and persecution.

India is not party to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, nor the 1967 Protocol, but our nation has had a long history of providing  asylum  These groups are accommodated and assisted in accessing education, healthcare, employment and residence. However in more recent years, the politics of asylum seekers and refugees has been used and manipulated to best serve the powers-that-be, rather than those that require our assistance the most. Mainly because its political parties’ whims and administrative decisions that govern the status of refugees in India. Instead, there should be a specific to refugees or asylum seekers, but there isn’t. For instance, In recent years thousands of Rohingya Muslims have settled here, fleeing violence and persecution in Myanmar. Many of them escaped by boat or travelled on foot to Bangladesh and then to India. But the accusation of cross-border terrorism and fear for national security has been invoked by the right-wing BJP government and their ideologues. This is related to their stance on Muslim citizens of India, and unfortunately by extension, to Rohingya Muslims. These accusations determine their fate as asylum seekers in India.

Recently arrived Rohingya refugees. Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images.

There is an urgent requirement for all of us to become aware and raise our combined voices, otherwise the lives of refugees will be swayed by the whims of the politics of the day.

The lack of specific refugee legislation in India has led the government to adopt an ad-hoc approach to different refugee influxes. This has invariably led to varying treatment of different refugee groups. Hence, some groups are granted a full range of benefits including legal residence and the ability to be legally employed, while others are criminalised and denied access to basic social resources. Therefore it is imperative that India passes a coherent domestic law, a codified model of conduct, to deal with the issue of asylum seekers and refugees.

In the absence of said specific law, the statute that deals with the entry and exit of refugees is the Foreigners Act of 1946 and the Citizenship Act 1955. Regrettably these acts do not distinguish refugees fleeing persecution from other foreigners; they apply to all non-citizens equally. Under the acts, it is a criminal offence to be without valid travel or residence documents. These provisions render refugees liable to deportation and detention.

Accepting refugees shouldn’t be thought of as charity. Instead it must have a rights-based approach, an inclusive attempt at encouraging asylum seekers and refugees to forge relationships with the host country’s communities and be constructive members of the society. It should also discourage host country citizens from seeing refugees and asylum seekers as a danger to our way of life. This fear, anxiety and insecurity surrounding asylum seekers and refugees tarnishes our age-old philosophy of “Atithi Devo Bhava”; a guest is equivalent to God.

The plight of the asylum seeker or refugee cannot be simplistically described as a problem that is ‘out there’ and not looked at through our personal, subjective viewpoints. To have empathy for the asylum seekers and view their situation as greater than ‘those poor people’, we must view the connection between individual and society. The language used in everyday life has a great influence on the way that we feel inside, we need to be critical of the media’s repetitive use of dehumanizing images. Negative language about ‘boat arrivals’ serves to promote public anxiety about people they now perceive as a threat. Immigration, detention, ‘boat people’—this language has been conveniently used to disempower the vulnerable. It breeds so much negativity that many of us cannot even differentiate between what is real and what is politically manufactured. Here is a systematic way of instilling fear amongst the prospective voters that their country is being invaded by boat people.

The politics of the security of India ultimately suggests the escalation of the perceived security threat will enable severe measures to combat the refugee issues, and make the use of detention more acceptable in public opinion. Consider for a moment thousands of children who are kept in detention for years, separated from their parents. Some even die before being reunited with their families. That situation is totally unacceptable in our modern society and to our customary values.

Regardless of the individual stance that each of us has on the issue of asylum seekers one thing remains consistent throughout the debate—the issue of children in detention. This is despite the fact that India is a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Why? Primarily because different political parties have continued the ‘hard line’ against asylum seeker arrivals and refugees.

It is time we have proper legislation on the issue. We need well-defined refugee law and judicial intervention, so that ‘we the people’ change the political landscape, rather than politicians doing it without our consent.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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