The brunt of realpolitik is borne by the civilians rendered refugees
As armed conflicts, climate crisis and poverty rage like wildfires around the world, millions have been rendered homeless. This global refugee crisis now threatens to push many countries to the very brink.
Brute power from state or foreign militaries has by far contributed the most to the global refugee crisis. To go by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR’s) statistics till mid-2021, about 84 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced. Of these, more than 26.6 million are refugees. As a matter of fact, 68 per cent of refugees originated from just five countries—Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar. Syria alone contributed 6.7 million refugees, whereas Venezuela contributed 4 million, Afghanistan to 2.6 million, South Sudan to 2.2 million, and Myanmar to 1.1 million. The rest amounted to 7.9 million refugees.
Displacements can be a result of violence inflicted by governments on their own people, offensive action from a foreign military, climate change and even poverty. Not all who are displaced within or outside the country are lucky enough to escape along with their families. In fact, nearly half of the world’s refugees are children. To put it in figures, children account for 30 per cent of the world’s population, but 42 per cent of all forcibly displaced people. Millions of children, according to UNICEF, are on the move. “Some are driven from their homes by conflict, poverty, or climate change; others leave in the hope of finding a better life. Far too many encounter danger, detention, deprivation, and discrimination on their journeys, at destination or upon return.”
Thanks to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, more than 14 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine. While nearly six million have left for neighbouring countries, another eight million have been displaced within the country. Poland, Romania, Russia, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia, Belarus, Czech Republic and Germany have all received Ukrainian refugees. The United Nations (UN) estimates that at least 2.1 million Ukrainians have returned home.
Similarly, when the US forces withdrew and the Taliban took over in Afghanistan in August 2021, a number of Afghan refugees fled to Pakistan and Iran. Afghans, having suffered more than 40 years of war and unrest, were already the world’s third-largest displaced population. Before the recent crisis, a vast majority of refugees from Afghanistan had been living in Pakistan and Iran, which continue to host more than 1.4 million and 780,000 registered Afghan refugees respectively. Nearly 2.6 million Afghans are refugees. As per UNHCR estimates, Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours – Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan today house these refugees. As a result of four decades of war, India hosts about 21,000 Afghan refugees. As is natural, 73 percent of all refugees are housed by neighbouring countries.
The wealthiest of countries, such as the US, continue to shirk responsibility for hosting more refugees. The UNHCR data suggests Turkey (3.7 million), Colombia (1.7 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.4 million) and Germany (1.2 million) are the top five hosting countries.
The burden is borne by smaller countries whose resources are already under considerable stress and who do not have much to offer even to their own people. In wake of the 10-year Syrian crisis, the 6.7 million Syrian refugees have sought refuge in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey. In Lebanon, while there are no formal camps, nearly one million Syrians live in temporary shelters. Almost 2.2 million Sudanese refugees have been living in Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Similarly, after Myanmar’s crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in 2017, nearly 9,80,000 people were displaced. About 8,90,000 went to Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. Many sought refuge in Thailand, India, Indonesia and Nepal.
Sudan, in north-eastern Africa, shares borders with South Sudan, Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya as well as the Red Sea. It is an example of how a country, while itself battling violence, drought and famine due to climate change, is also a shelter giver. It’s the fifth largest country of asylum for refugees (coming in from different countries including South Sudan). It is also a country which until December 2021, produced about 8,05,000 refugees. Next, Somalian refugees have been housed by Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen. In a region already shrouded in unrest, every country is bearing a burden of its neighbours. While refugees leave homes behind for a semblance of normalcy, they are having to literally choose between a rock and a hard place, notwithstanding the fact that quality of life remains far from improved.
Coming to India, the country is host to 214,000 forcibly displaced people. This includes 92,978 refugees from Sri Lanka and 72,312 Tibetans. As of 30 April 2022, 48,665 refugees and asylum-seekers are registered with UNHCR in India. The most common countries of people seeking asylum in India are Myanmar, Afghanistan and smaller numbers from Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, and Sudan among others.
While these are the figures that the UNHCR has given to FORCE, findings of an organisation by the name Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG), an independent think-tank based in New Delhi present a different picture. According to them, India has about 400,000 refugees, of which 238,222 are recognised. About 20,000 refugees including 18,000 from Myanmar, mostly Chins, took shelter in India in 2021 after the military coup in that country. An unaccounted number of Afghan refugees also took shelter in the country this year, it said. 4,557 Afghans were in India on Long Term Visa (LTVs) as of December 2021. Suhas Chakma, Director of the RRAG told NDTV that about 31,313 refugees belonging to the minority communities from neighbouring countries who have been given LTV on the basis of their claims of religious persecution and want Indian citizenship, and about 123,000 unregistered Chin and Rohingya refugees are sheltered in India.
The UNHCR defines resettlement as the selection and transfer of refugees from a country in which they have sought protection to a third country that has granted them permission to stay on the basis of long-term or permanent residence status. It is a solution that ensures refugees are protected against refoulment (forced return), provides them access to rights similar to those enjoyed by citizens and gives them an opportunity to eventually become citizens of the resettlement country. Given the number of refugees and conflicts happening all over the world, for most of which the US is directly or indirectly responsible, it must be noted that the country conducts a rigorous vetting process to determine whether to accept a refugee for resettlement.
In September 2021, the US announced that the maximum number of refugees admitted to the country in 2022 will be increased to 125,000—the highest number since 1993. As of September 2021, the number of refugees who resettled in the United States was merely 11,411. The 2021 fiscal year (FY) cap for resettled refugees was 15,000—but was later increased to 62,500. In FY 2020, the country resettled fewer than 12,000 refugees, a far cry from the 70,000 to 80,000 resettled annually just a few years earlier and the 207,000 welcomed in 1980, the year the formal US resettlement programme began. President Joe Biden’s administration has pledged to reverse this trend and, after initial wavering, in early May increased the limit for resettlement of refugees in FY 2021, which runs through September, from the historically low 15,000 set by President Trump to 62,500, as per Migration Information Source. Biden has pledged 125,000 resettlement places in FY 2022.
While the high-income country may go on controlling the narrative, its contribution to the refugee crisis remains limited. The lower and middle-income countries, as is evident from the exhaustive figures presented above, are doing much more for refugees. Amnesty International says that a whopping 85 per cent of refugees are being hosted in developing countries. ‘Wealthier countries aren’t doing nearly enough to share the cost of protecting people who have left everything behind. Appeals for humanitarian assistance for refugees are consistent—and often severely—underfunded,’ the human rights organisation says. The group suggests having a global plan based on ‘genuine international cooperation and a meaningful and fair sharing of responsibilities.’ A report by the group draws a comparison between a high-income country and a low-income country in terms of hosting refugees. It says, ‘For example, the UK has taken in fewer than 8,000 Syrians since 2011, while Jordan—with a population almost 10 times smaller than the UK and just 1.2 per cent of its GDP—hosts more than 655,000 refugees from Syria.”
It has been repeatedly noted that most refugees, no matter which country they belong to, are not keen on settling abroad. It is the circumstances that push them to run away from homes to lead safer lives. Like in the case of the US, the number of acceptance of refugees in every wealthy country has depended on its political leadership. An arbitrary decision-making style wherein an elected leader decides whether or not to welcome refugees, ends up making refugees tools in national and international politics. This violates the 1951 Refugee Convention, which most of these Western countries have signed.
Human rights lawyer and author Nandita Haksar during the pre-launch of her book ‘Forgotten Refugees’ in March 2022 said that the rich countries in the West were paying the UN to keep refugees from coming to their countries. She believed refugee rights have come to be weaponised. Turkey is responsible to keep them and not let them go to Europe in exchange for money. So now Turkey uses this as a weapon and threatens to let them loose unless its interests are met. “Refugees are used as pawns in international games,” she said.
And What About India?
Last September, hundreds of Afghans along with the other refugees protested outside the UNHCR office demanding recognition as refugees and better economic security for their children. Many of them arrived in India several years ago but are struggling and are living in dire economic conditions because they’ve not been able to work. India does not have a refugee law and treats all those coming into the country seeking refugee status as illegal migrants under ‘The Foreigners Act of 1946.’
The UNHCR processes people’s applications and determines their status in India. Until then, they’re handed a document that allows them to stay in the country. But the document proves to be of no help most of the time because it is dismissed by Indian authorities. In fact, in the recent past, there have been incidents where the refugees producing these documents have been arrested. This document, blue in colour, means that the individual’s refugee status is under consideration. This then helps them to apply for a residential permit or a long-term visa. The protests outside the UNHCR were for better economic security. Despite having the document but no cooperation from the government authorities would mean that these people are unable to access basic rights such as education, jobs as well as renting of homes.
India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention nor its 1967 Protocol, which has 140 signatories. Despite this, even as India continues to host refugees it fails to provide them with a life at par with the locals. This is due to the absence of any domestic law or a regional framework. A domestic legislation would mean the protection of refugees and asylum seekers.
In March-April 2022, amid much opposition from Human Rights groups, the Indian government called the Rohingya who sought asylum in India ‘illegal immigrants’ and a ‘threat to national security.’ The Indian Supreme Court in 2021 refused to stop the deportation of Rohingya refugees. Families of those who were deported back to Myanmar in March were later informed of it. These families are afraid of the well-being and safety of the deported members. The Diplomat reported that a mother of three children was deported while her children remain here, in Jammu. The Myanmar military, which is in power now, has been accused of killing and raping thousands of Rohingya back home. India hosts about 40,000 Rohingya refugees living in camps and slums in different parts of the country. This has happened in context with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) where the government is handing out citizenships to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh except Muslims. This move had been widely criticised by all students and minorities in India and had led to widespread protests across the country.
In March 2021, when 170 refugees were detained for the identification process, they were then sent to a holding centre in Hiranagar jail in Jammu, some 60 kilometres from the city. A year later, the number of those detained swelled to 235, according to HRW. According to Nandita Haksar, “Earlier, when UNHCR recognised a refugee, India respected that. Once a refugee got a UNHCR identity card and she/ he was determined as a refugee, that refugee went to the Foreigners Registration Office (FRRO) to register. The FRRO then allowed them to have a residence permit or a long-term visa. They could then get an Aadhar card, bank account, get a job and license. Over time, even before the BJP came to power, the government stopped giving residence permits. Even when they were UNHCR refugees, they started deporting them. It was the Muslim refugees who were mostly the target.”
Human Rights lawyers have repeatedly stated that India treats its refugee differently. While Tibetans and Sri Lankan Tamils do not face bias, it is predominantly the Muslim communities from different states who face difficulties. Myanmar’s Rohingyas and Chin communities have also been at the receiving end of India’s arbitrary actions. In 2021, at least 414 refugees mainly from Myanmar i.e., about 354 Rohingyas and 60 Chins and other ethnic Myanmarese nationals were arrested by the police in various states of India. The country takes up welfare measures for Tibetans and Tamilians, but no such benefits are extended to other communities.
Acknowledging the crucial role that the UNHCR has played all these years, in the recent past the organisation’s functioning has not been up to the mark due to a lack of funds. Citing an example Haksar said, “UNHCR is supposed to give sanitary towels to women refugees. They couldn’t even cover 20 per cent. The money comes from the West, but it has not been paying.”
UNHCR used to give a stipend to every refugee. Now however, while some refugees get money, others don’t. Unless India decides on creating a full-fledged refugee law neither are the refugees going to be able to seek a proper life in India, nor is the government going to be able to address security concerns. Currently, most refugees coming in are avoiding registrations, for fear of being deported. A non-discriminatory refugee law will solve this issue and allow India to repatriate a refugee found in violation of the country’s laws.
Headline: ‘In India, Refugees and Asylum Seekers Continue to Face Challenges Concerning Their Legal Recognition and Obtaining Government-Issued Documents’
Intro: UNHCR Chief of Mission for India and Maldives, Oscar Mundia