India is home to the largest number of refugees in South Asia yet it does not have a specific legal framework to deal with the problem. Rohingya crisis presents an opportunity to put in place a law relating to status of refugees.
According to United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 3 lakh Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since August 25 when the latest phase of violence broke out in the Rakhine province of the country.
Earlier in May this year, the UNHCR stated that about 1,68,000 Rohingyas had fled Myanmar since 2012, when clashes with Buddhists erupted in the trouble-torn Arakan region. Over 40,000 of those Rohingyas, who fled Myanmar, have entered India illegally, according to government’s estimate.
The Narendra Modi government is concerned over Rohingyas’ stay in India for security regions. In its affidavit to the Supreme Court, the government said that some of the Rohingyas with militant background were found to be very active in Jammu, Delhi, Hyderabad and Mewat. They have been identified as having a very serious and potential threat to the internal and national security of India, the Centre told the Supreme Court.
What government wants to do with Rohingyas?
Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju has stated it categorically that the government is looking for ways to deport over 40,000 Rohingyas living in the country illegally. The government is worried about the suspected infiltration of terror outfits among the displaced people living in various camps.
The UNHCR and the Amnesty International, however, asked India to reconsider its decision saying that the Rohingyas are the most persecuted ethnic group in the world. India should adopt humanitarian approach in dealing with Rohingya problem, they said.
Refusing to bow under international pressure over Rohingya crisis, India made it clear that it would not compromise with the security concerns of the country. However, the government decided to extend help to Bangladesh in providing all amenities to the fleeing Rohingyas, who are being relocated in camps there. India also asked Myanmar to end persecution of Rohingyas.
Rohingyas as refugees in India
Though India has the biggest number of refugees in the country in the entire South Asia and dealt with one of the biggest refugee crises in the world during partition of the country seven decades back, New Delhi does not have a refugee specific law.
The Constitution of India only defines who is a citizen of India. The subsequent laws also do not deal with refugees. In legal terms, a person living in India can be either a citizen or a foreigner defined under the Foreigners Act, 1946.
India has also not been a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention or the 1967 Protocol – both relating to the Status of Refugees and included in the UNHCR statute. According to the UNHCR, a refugee is a person living in another country following persecution in his own on the grounds of “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
Before the present Rohingya crisis broke out, there were “2,07,861 persons of concern in India, of whom 2,01,281 were refugees and 6,480 asylum seekers” by the end of 2015, according to UNHCR.
There are about 16,000 UNHCR-certified Rohingya refugees in India. The government estimate puts the figure of Rohingya refugees living in India beyond 40,000 with maximum concentration in and around Jammu.
Issues with Rohingyas as living in India
Before the Rohingya crisis acquired international proportion, their population in Myanmar was estimated at around 10 lakh. Under the 1982 citizenship law, Myanmar government recognised only about 40,000 Rohingyas as its citizens. The rest were dubbed as “illegal Bengalis” – immigrants from Bangladesh.
As the Myanmar government does not recognise the Rohingyas as its citizens, in general, it will be difficult for India to deport them. And, in the absence of a well defined refugee policy backed by a law passed by Parliament, India won’t be able to accommodate Rohingyas as their stay in the country will give a spin to political narrative.
The Centre has told the Supreme Court that many Rohingyas have acquired documents meant for Indian citizens only like Aadhaar, PAN and Voter-ID. This raises the concern of naturalisation of illegal migrants by fraudulent means. Given the socio-economic complexities of Indian society and politics, soon there may be a debate around the minority rights of the Rohingyas.
In the absence of a law to deal with refugees, their identification and surveillance will become difficult especially when the intelligence agencies have warned the jihadi terror outfits are looking to exploit the vulnerability of Rohingyas.
Refugee Policy and a bill
Till now the successive governments have dealt with refugee question on case by case basis. The Tibetan refugees were given the Registration Certificates and the Identity Certificates.
The Sri Lankan Tamils, who fled their country to escape persecution by the government forces when the island nation was battling with the LTTE insurgency, were classified as “camp refugees” and “non-camp refugees”.
The minority refugees – Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians – from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan were allowed to stay in India on Long Term Visas.
In 2015, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor introduced a Private Member’s Bill titled the Asylum Bill, 2015 in the Lok Sabha. The Bill seeks to provide for the establishment of a legal framework to deal with refugee problem. But, the Bill has not yet been taken up for consideration.