Thursday, September 24, 2009

In Alien Country ~ South Asia Must Coordinate Its Stand on Refugees

Compiled by Priyanca Mathur Velath

THE history of South Asia is unique in the context of population displacement. People have been pushed beyond their borders in the wake of wars or they have left their country of origin on ethnic, racial, ideological or religious grounds. Migration has taken place for environmental or developmental reasons as well. Since Independence, India and Pakistan have witnessed a massive movement of refugees. After Partition, 7.5 million Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan crossed over to India and 7.2 million Muslim refugees went over to Pakistan. It was the largest recorded refugee movement in history. There was little international assistance to cope with this massive humanitarian crisis. In 1971, 10 million refugees crossed over to India during Bangladesh’s liberation struggle. In 1979, 3.5 million Afghans fled their country in the wake of the Soviet invasion and received asylum in Pakistan, of whom 1.2 million are still said to be there in the refugee camps. From the seventies to the nineties, Bangladesh witnessed the influx of over 300,000 Muslim refugees from Rakhine district in Myanmar, of whom nearly 30,000 are yet to be repatriated. Similarly, 90,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin were expelled and a substantial number have been accommodated in the refugee camps of Jhapa district of Nepal. However, many of them have recently been resettled in third countries by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Sri Lanka has often been described as an ‘Island of Refugees’ because of the external displacement of Tamils and internal displacement of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Though Sri Lanka is not regarded as a country that grants asylum, it is well known as a “refugee-producing country”. Since 1983, Sri Lanka has produced hundreds of thousands of refugees apart from over 500,000 Sri Lankan Tamil ‘jet refugees’ to the Western world. The majority of Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu were voluntarily repatriated, but over 60,000 still remain because of the disturbed conditions in north-east Sri Lanka. Since the 1960s, India has played host to over 100,000 Tibetan refugees and 50,000 Buddhist Chakma refugees from the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. Some of them were repatriated recently. India has permitted the UNHCR to assist about 12,000 Afghan refugees on humanitarian grounds. Maldives is the only SAARC country which has neither produced nor received a significant refugee population. Despite the movement of refugees and the humanitarian issue of asylum, none of the SAARC countries has acceded to the 1951 International Convention on Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, which has been ratified by 136 countries. However, all the SAARC countries, except Bhutan and Nepal, have offices of the UNHCR ~ the UN agency responsible for the promotion of the “Refugee Instruments” and marshalling of international humanitarian assistance. The reasons advanced by the SAARC countries for not acceding to the 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol are very similar. They argue that they have well-grounded traditions of asylum comparable to international standards, sometimes even better than what is practised by some of the signatory states to the International Refugee Instruments. Therefore, they are in favour of dealing with the issue on the basis of ad hoc bilateral policies. However, these countries ~ with the exception of India ~ have welcomed international humanitarian assistance based on the need to share the burden. The SAARC countries further argue that the 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol are inadequate to comprehensively address the issue, largely the outcome of internal conflicts and not the fear of persecution by the states per se. In support of their contention of inadequacy of the International Refugee Instruments, they cite the regional refugee instruments of Africa, the 1958 Organisation of African Unity Convention and the one for refugees in Latin America, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees. These, they claim, are more comprehensive in their definition of refugees. The situation in South Asia has affected both national security and inter-state relations. The countries are generally reluctant to discuss the problem on a humanitarian basis. Since all refugees are technically considered illegal aliens, they have no institutional protection or the protection of the rule of law. In this context, a regional convention or declaration by the SAARC countries will be timely and relevant. Such an agreement on fundamental questions as the definition of a refugee, the granting of asylum and the exceptions thereto, and the voluntary nature of eventual repatriation will curb friction between the state interlocutors. A SAARC Refugee Convention or Declaration will mark a major step forward in developing a humanitarian regime in the region…………. (Statesman 31/8/09)


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