How we treat refugees has a bearing on how we treat our own people’, says Nandita Haksar at the release of her new book
Nandita Haksar, a practising human rights lawyer, campaigner and teacher has written a new book Forgotten Refugees: Two Iraqi Brothers in India. The book is published by Speaking Tiger. A pre-release discussion on this book was held on March 25 at Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWCP) in New Delhi. Haksar was in conversation with FORCE’s Executive Editor, Ghazala Wahab.
The book narrates the story of two Iraqi brothers, Babil and Akkad, who came to India in 2014. Haksar, who has been dealing with refugees from 1990, met them outside the gate of UNHCR in November 2021. The two refugees were among those who were camping on the road outside the UNHCR office.
Refugees stood outside the office, angry, shouting slogans, but the UNHCR’s door was firmly closed and barricaded. Outside the UNHCR, a number of refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo and different parts of Africa were demonstrating. The author struck a conversation with these refugees and asked them why they had come all the way to India. They replied: “We came to India because we thought this was a liberal country. We thought of India as a home where we would be accepted; a tolerant country.” Speaking about her work and what made her write this book, she said, “They [refugees] are a mirror into how we treat human beings in our country.”
“The refugee problem links us to the whole world. How we treat refugees also has a bearing on how we treat our own people,” she added. Her current book revolves around the displacement of these two brothers and their journey gives a bigger picture of the treatment meted out to refugees in India. “Refugees are people, not statistics,” she says.
UN Convention for Refugees
Haksar said that most of the third world did not sign the UN Convention for Refugees 1951 because the refugee law was made during the Cold War by the Americans to support people escaping the Soviet Union. There was certain politics to which the Non-Aligned Movement nations did not wish to be a party to and therefore they did not sign that.
She added that India and Pakistan had the largest number of refugees after the Partition. The West never recognised them. Politics apart, the problem today is that India does not have a law to protect refugees. The approach to refugees works on two levels. One is the legal regime, and the other is the informal regime. She says, “We accept refugees and each set of refugees have been treated differently. Tibetans are given identity cards, but the others are not. Some, like the Sri Lankan Tamils, were given special camps. Once a refugee got a UNHCR identity card and he/ she was accepted as a refugee by India, they were required to get themselves registered at FRRO, which is a norm for all foreigners. The FRRO then allowed them to have a residential permit or a long-term visa. They could get an Aadhar card, bank account, job, and driving license. However, over a period of time, even before the BJP came to power, the government stopped giving residential permits. Worse, even when they were UNHCR refugees, they started deporting them. It was the Muslim refugees who were mostly the target.”
All refugees are regarded as foreigners in India. They mostly come with a passport. But their visas expire over time, and they are forced to stay on without legal travel papers. The Indian law regards them as illegal or aliens. They are liable to be arrested, detained, imprisoned and deported.
In the book she writes, “In documenting the story of these two young men, I discovered many aspects of India’s history and its connections with Iraq. So, this is also a story of a lost friendship between our two countries, our peoples.”
Refugees and Security
“I am not saying there are no security concerns. There are,” says Haksar. “In the north-east, where a lot of refugees come, there are security concerns. But, when the UNHCR gives a person the refugee status, for instance the Iraqi brothers, they do a background check with the home country. That’s why sometimes it takes one year to determine refugee status.”
According to her, the way to deal with security concerns is not denying them refugee status, but getting in a legal framework to deal with the problem. “When you do illegal things to your citizens and refugees, you destroy your own institutions. We are destroying our own criminal justice system, courts, media. Solutions lie within our system and laws. Not by making us more authoritarian.”