India is one of the few democracies that is not a signatory to both the Refugee Convention and the Protocol
Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, ‘everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’. In keeping with the letter and spirit of this Right, more than 145 countries of the world have signed the United Nations ‘1951 Refugee Convention’ and the ‘Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees 1967’.
According to the Refugee Convention, “a ‘refugee’ is one who owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”.
Unfortunately, India is one of the few democracies in the world that is not a signatory to both the Refugee Convention and the Protocol. This is certainly beyond comprehension, because India has a track record of hosting millions of refugees from the neighbouring countries and even from some African ones. Thanks to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Government in May 1971, India provided refuge to more than ten million Bangla Deshis, in the wake of the civil war there. Today, besides the many Bangla Deshis who have continued to stay on, there are thousands of Tibetans, Sri Lankan Tamils, Afghanis, and Rohingyas from Myanmar, Bhutanese from Nepal and even from Sudan, Somalia and other sub- Saharan African countries who have sought refuge in India.
Today, the refugee crisis grips the world as never before! About a year ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) pegged the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people around the world as 65.3 million. This means that one in every 113 people on earth has now been driven from their home by war, persecution, human rights violations or climate change (which is erroneously and conveniently referred to as ‘natural disasters’). To put it more graphically each minute about 24 people around the world have to flee their home for no fault of their own. With the escalation of violence in several countries like Yemen, DRC, South Sudan, northeast Nigeria and that more than 20 million people are affected across Africa because of war, drought and hunger- the actual figures of refugees and the displaced might be much more.
More than half of the refugees (53%) today come from just three countries: Syria (4.9m), Afghanistan (2.7m) and Somalia (1.1m). Strangely enough and contrary to public perception the countries which host the most amount of refugees today are Turkey(2.5m), Pakistan(1.6m),Lebanon(1.1m), Iran(979,400), Ethiopia(736,100) and Jordan(664,100). Recently, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres criticised rising xenophobia and “aggressive nationalism” in western democracies, calling for greater social cohesion. He said that, “It is essential to not just address the humanitarian crises, but to build resilience - of populations, of regions and countries - to create the conditions for those humanitarian crises not to be repeated,”
Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are often conveniently forgotten. A recently published report of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (of the Norwegian Refugee Council) states that, “more than 31 million people- one every second- were uprooted in their home country in 2016 because of conflicts and disasters, and numbers will grow unless the underlying causes like climate change and political turmoil are tackled.”. The added woes of the IDPs that unlike refugees who seek asylum in other countries, they are unable to claim any international protection since they remain in their own country.
IDPs in India could easily run into a mind-boggling figure. Violence in several parts of the country, the construction of mega-projects(the Narmada Dam is a classic example) by powerful vested interests and even by Government, perennial famines, floods and other ‘natural’ disasters have displaced hundreds of thousands all over the country. Most of those affected are the poor and vulnerable like the adivasis, dalits and minorities. The official response to the plight of IDPs is simply pathetic.
The global refugee crisis is bound to continue as long as countries like the US continue to produce arms and ammunition and sell them to countries like Saudi Arabia. Recently US and Saudi Arabia signed an arms deal of $110 billion. Saudi Arabia is well known for its human rights violations and for fomenting terrorism (the US conveniently forgets that those mainly behind the 9/11 attacks were the Saudis).Sadly, there is no international outrage condemning such arms deal. The military-industrial complex is obviously keen that wars continue; that countries like Saudi Arabia and India continue buying sophisticated weaponry
A sizeable majority of those who flee war and persecution are those who long to minority communities. Take for example the Rohingyas in Myanmar; According to a UN report issued last month, Myanmar’s forces and the majority Buddhist community have committed mass killings and gang rapes against the Rohingya community. There are more than 1.3 million Rohingya people in the world. Although they have lived in Myanmar for more than two centuries, this Muslim minority is not among those officially recognised by the authorities there. Stateless, rejected and persecuted, in recent months tens of thousands of them have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, where they are crammed into shanty settlements.
On June 20th, the United Nations will once again observe World Refugee Day, ‘to honour the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict and violence’. It may continue to be yet another cosmetic observance unless the world wakes up urgently to the endemic causes, which create forcible displacements and ultimately refugees.
Many refugees and displaced are also subject to torture, both in India and in other other countries. Article 3 of the UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT)states, ‘No state party shall expel, return (refouler) or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.’ June 26th is observed as the UN ‘International Day in Support of Victims of Torture’. India has still not ratified the UNCAT.
In June 2017, the UNHCR launched a global campaign #WithRefugees demanding that world leaders and governments work together and do much more for refugees. There is certainly much more to be done! A wake up call for all particularly for India to ratify the Refugee Convention and Protocol and UNCAT now!
*Human rights activist currently based in Lebanon and engaged with the Jesuit Refugee Service(JRS) in the Middle East on advocacy and communications