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India badly needs a refugee policy: Harsh treatment of Rohingya goes against international principles

For a country that embraces the principle of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (“The World is One Family”), and is often referred to by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Vishwaguru (“Teacher of the World”), the discriminatory and hostile treatment meted out to the Rohingya is not only against its ethos but also makes for bad optics on the world stage. 

E.D. Mathew Sep 18, 2022
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Rohingya refugees in Delhi (Photo: Twitter)

A tweet last month by India's Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri that said the government will shift some 1,100-odd Rohingya refugees living in Delhi to flats for economically weaker sections was quickly refuted by the Ministry of Home Affairs. A press note by the latter spelled out the government’s policy on these refugees from Myanmar. Rohingya are “illegal foreigners”, never mind most of them carry official ID cards provided by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that recognize their refugee status. The BJP government will continue its efforts for their “deportation” to Myanmar, never mind it is against the universally accepted principle of non-refoulment, enshrined in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

Puri’s tweet was retracted promptly, but also said that India had always welcomed those who sought refuge in the country. But for the government, that policy doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to the Rohingya, who are predominantly Muslim. A party spokesperson described the hapless refugees as a “threat to national security” without offering any evidence to prove the claim.

The contradiction within the government has exposed India's inconsistent stance on refugees in general and in particular the hostility faced by the Rohingya living in India.

Five years have passed since more than one million Rohingya fled the Rakhine State and nearby areas following targeted attacks against them by the Myanmar military. The United Nations has described these atrocities as “genocide”. Most of those who fled sought shelter in neighbouring Bangladesh with which they share a common religion, culture and language. Today, over 30 camps they occupy in southern Bangladesh constitute the largest refugee settlement in the world.

So far, no organized repatriation back home has happened. With the same Tatmadaw that unleashed atrocities on the Rohingya now governing Myanmar following last year’s coup, the prospects of their returning home look dimmer than ever before. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has described the Rohingya as one of the “most discriminated people in the world."

Rohingya in India 

According to the U.N. Human Rights Council, there are over 16,000 Rohingya who currently live in India. However, the Indian government puts the number much higher, at over 40,000, settled in a dozen states and territories. Most of them are engaged in menial jobs such as hawking and pulling rickshaws.

The controversy surrounding India’s handling of the Rohingya has its roots in the government’s ad-hoc refugee policy with no streamlined rules and regulations. It means all refugees do not get the same treatment. Also, India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention that recognizes the rights of people seeking asylum abroad due to persecution in their own countries.

With bigotry and communal polarisation on the rise, religion increasingly factors into the systematic marginalization of Muslims in India today. Religious bias against those seeking asylum in the country is a recent phenomenon. The Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 reinforces this bias with its denial of Muslims' eligibility to seek Indian citizenship, unlike Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis who came to India from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh before 31 December 2014. The government’s facile argument is that Muslims cannot be a “persecuted minority” in these three countries since they constitute the majority there.

Interestingly, as Puri rightly pointed out, India has a long history of receiving refugees with open arms from all over the world. Jews arrived in India centuries before Christ, fleeing from the marauding Babylonians. India has welcomed Romans, Bahais and Zoroastrians as well as Tibetans, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankan Tamils in the past without the bias now shown to the Rohingya. Parsis, who fled Iran, are among India’s richest business communities today.

For a country that embraces the principle of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (“The World is One Family”), and is often referred to by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Vishwaguru (“Teacher of the World”), the discriminatory and hostile treatment meted out to the Rohingya is not only against its ethos but also makes for bad optics on the world stage.  The lack of compassion toward the Rohingya -- who have suffered some of the worst atrocities imaginable -- is a PR disaster for the world’s largest democracy which aspires to be a global power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

“Given our history, India ought to be a natural leader on the question of refugee rights on the world stage. However, our present actions and our lack of a legal framework does our heritage no credit, shames us in the eyes of the world, and fails to match up to our actual past track record”, Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP, whose private member’s bill in the Lok Sabha proposing the enactment of a refugee and asylum law has been gathering dust somewhere in the corridors of the government since early this year.

Both the UNHCR and the refugees consider the current conditions in Myanmar unsuitable for safe return. Several repatriation attempts organized by the Bangladesh government have failed because the refugees, despite their desire to return, fear further abuse and oppression in their home country.

India should immediately stop its plan to deport the Rohingya as it will put the hapless refugees in harm’s way since Myanmar’s military junta is unable to ensure their security and safety. Forcible repatriation of the refugees will also be a flagrant violation of the key principle of non-refoulment, the cornerstone of the Refugee Convention. Besides, it is a betrayal of India’s age-old tradition of welcoming asylum seekers who look for shelter on our shores.  

India badly needs a clearly delineated refugee policy based on a legal framework that treats all refugees equally and without discrimination.

(The writer is a former UN spokesperson. views are personal. He can be contacted at edmathew@gmail.com)

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