“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.
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.