Friday, June 25, 2010

Protection Regime for Refugees in Pakistan

Atta ur Rehman Sheikh
[Development Consultant, currently working with National Disaster Management Authority, Government of Pakistan]

Pakistan has been host to millions of refugees and illegal immigrants. Following Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan accommodated over three million Afghan refugees on humanitarian grounds. There were several subsequent influxes of Afghans into Pakistan owing to internal fighting and wars in Afghanistan, particularly following the War on Terror in 2001, combined with intermittent droughts and the volatile security situation. Prior to Afghan refugees, Pakistan successfully managed seven million refugees from India at the time of independence in 1947. Currently, illegal immigrant population residing in Pakistan stands at 3.5 million. In terms of the treatment they receive, their situation is not dissimilar from that of internally displaced persons (IDPs), who are the product of development projects, natural disasters or internal conflict. Currently, the total number of IDPs in Pakistan, as per UNHCR figures, stands at 1.23 million.

However, in spite of continuing experiences of such magnitude, Pakistan, like other developing countries, has not been able to evolve comprehensive policy or laws to effectively address its refugee problem. Nor, despite being member of the Executive Committee of the UNHCR, is Pakistan a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. So far, therefore, the measures undertaken to manage refugees have, in general, been ad-hoc and on a case by case basis.

The constitution of Pakistan does not contain any provision for refugees or externally displaced persons. There is no policy regarding refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons. Thus under existing laws all refugees and displaced people have the de facto status of illegal aliens, subject to the Foreigners Act of 1946, which does not allow any refugee or asylum seeker to be the citizen of the country.

One exception to the ad-hoc treatment of refugees was the management of the seven million people who migrated to Pakistan following the partition of India in 1947. At that time the government had established a refugee rehabilitation agency, namely Refugee Rehabilitation Finance Corporation, which performed the job of settlement and resettlement of displaced persons fairly well. All in all, that may be considered a success story.

Afghan refugees have generally been welcomed in Pakistan, both at the government and public level, ever since they began to arrive in Pakistan in late 70s. They were taken in on humanitarian grounds but, to date, ambiguity remains as to which law should be applicable to different issues and problems encountered in the course of their management.

During their time of residence, which now spans over 30 years, different arrangements have been made to manage them. Initially, their management was delegated to relevant provinces. Subsequently, the office of Commissioner Afghan Refugees, attached to Ministry of State and Frontier Regions (SAFRON), was created in 1980. It was delegated powers over the administration and management of Afghan refugees, which included registration of refugees, camp management, distribution of relief goods and channelization of international aid.

The total recorded entry of Afghan refugees in Pakistan has been 4.4 million and there are still 1.7 million registered and nearly one million unregistered Afghans in Pakistan. According to UNHCR, there are at least 84 Afghan refugee camps (refugee villages) in the country including 71 in NWFP (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), 12 in Balochistan and one in Punjab province. Out of 2.1 million, one million live in camps (refugee villages).

Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops and end of the Cold War, Pakistan government adopted ‘closed door policy’, which included closure and relocation of camps as well as repatriation of refugees. The Pak-Afghan border was officially closed in November 2000. Prior to that, when international aid ceased in mid-90s, Afghan refugees were allowed to move out of camps to earn livelihood for themselves. As a result, population of Afghan refugees in urban areas, as per official figures, rose to 1.44 million.

The repatriation of Afghan refugees has been a complex issue in view of the 1400 KM long porous border and unstable situation in Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the massive repatriation in 1992 and subsequent spontaneous and planned return, most of the refugees were reluctant to go back because of the volatile security situation and limited economic opportunities. Given the situation, Pakistan, Afghanistan and UNHCR reached an agreement in 2002 to support the gradual and organized return of the refugees through the voluntary repatriation program. Under the program, 1.6 million refugees returned in 2002, 340,000 in 2003 and more than 380,000 in 2004 from Pakistan. This was attributed to presence of ISAF, which established some kind of peace and security, which thus created space for economic activities. Besides, decreasing opportunities of employment in Pakistan also encouraged them to repatriate. The process of repatriation slowed down afterwards, as many Afghans again began migrating to Pakistan, because of increasing insecurity and lack of basic facilities in their home country.

The tripartite commission reviewed the situation and, realizing the stark realities on ground, decided to take a census of refugees in order to formulate a comprehensive future strategy for Afghans living in Pakistan. Conducted in 2005, the census provided some reliable figures about Afghans living in Pakistan, estimating them to be over 3 million, with 42 per cent living in camps and 58 per cent outside the camps. Over 81 per cent were Pashtuns, with much smaller percentage of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen and other ethnic groups. Other findings of the census indicated that a significant proportion of the refugees were born in exile and that a majority, 82 per cent, of the registered refugees, did not want to go back to Afghanistan because of lack of security, shelter and livelihood.

In view of the situation, the Pakistan government and UNCHR signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2006, according to which the refugees were to be issued identity cards, valid for three years. Those who did not get themselves registered would be considered illegal immigrants. At the same time, UNHCR would continue to assist voluntary repatriation. After the passage of this period of three years, remaining Afghans would undergo screening for identification of those who might be in danger on their return and after assessment they would be provided with security and protection. Proof of Registration (PoR) issued under the agreement were to expire on December 2009; however, the government extended the validity till December 2012, though it continued to press for their repatriation.

Besides the Afghan refugees there are, according to official figures, 3.5 illegal immigrants in Pakistan. The illegal immigrants belongs to 76 different nationalities, majority includes Bangladeshis, Burmese, Arabs, Iranians, Africans, Chinese, Tajiks, Uzbeks, etc. Given its limited success in deporting or repatriating them or in providing them any kind of legal status, the government created a separate mechanism with the establishment of the National Alien Registration Authority (NARA) under the Foreigners’ (Amendment) Ordinance of 2002. Currently headquartered in Karachi with eight branches within the same city, NARA is in the process of expanding its outreach by setting up branches in other provinces as well. The authority has been mandated to register the aforementioned non-Afghan immigrants and to provide them with PoR, entitling them to reside and work in Pakistan. Since its establishment in 2002, over 150,000 illegal immigrants have registered themselves with NARA. The response to register has been slow because of distrust among communities of illegal immigrants, who fear that registration may ultimately lead to deportation.

Since 1947 numerous policies and laws have been formulated and enacted for different sectors, but legislation concerning refugees, displaced, asylum seekers and migrant workers has never been a priority. Absence of a clear policy, legal framework and effective and consistent management of refugees by the relevant institutions remain critically unresolved issues for Pakistan. Given the complexity of the problem and the millions of human lives involved, there is a dire and urgent to find effective measures to cope with it. The establishment of NARA is but one step towards the solution. A great deal more yet remains to be done if we are to effectively resolve the predicament of Afghan refugees and illegal immigrants. The establishment of effective ways and means of managing refugees is necessitated not only by the existing problem but also by the very real possibility of future influxes, whether caused by conflict or natural disasters.

Friday, June 18, 2010

World Refugee Day Special June 2010

Priyanca Mathur Velath
[member of IASFM, APRRN and an active researcher-writer on policy & politics of forced migration. She is completing her doctoral research at CLSG, J.N.U, New Delhi]


Huerta Muller, the German-speaking Romanian Nobel Laureate, in her 2009 Prize acceptance speech titled ‘Every word knows something of a vicious circle’ had said, “What can’t be said can be written. Because writing is a silent act, a labor from the head to the hand.” The Swedish Academy described her as a writer “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.” Muller, in her prize winning novel of ‘Land of the Green Plums’ described stagnant daily life in a dictatorship and the silent cruelty and terror of Communist Romania under the repressive Nicolae Ceausescu. To protect her freedom of speech she was able to emigrate to Germany in 1987 after years of persecution and censorship in Romania.

But there is a difference in being ‘able’ to flee and being ‘forced’ to flee. Millions of people across the globe continue to face persecution and are forced to flee their homes to save their lives. While ability to prove ‘persecution’ grants refugee status, being forced to flee for economic reasons gives one only the tag of an ‘economic migrant’. While crossing a national border makes one a ‘refugee’ and grants one access to the international refugee protection regime, the inability to do so leaves ‘internally displaced persons’ at the mercy of the state that displaced them. Labels and legal frameworks, state policies and international systems all operate with huge gaps and grey areas. Muller’s silent act of writing is perhaps the only way to continuously push forward the rights agenda in forced migration.

So, to commemorate ‘World Refugee Day’ on June 20, 2010, Refugee Watch Online has compiled a special issue with writings from eminent researchers, activists and journalists from across South Asia that highlight the plight of those without a ‘Home’ in this region. The Indian subcontinent that witnessed the world’s largest refugee flow ever across the borders of India and Pakistan in 1947, has also been home to refugees from Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and even Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Sudan and Eritrea. Refugee issues in South Asia are not just challenging in their varied geographical nature but also in diversity and multiplicity of causes and politics associated with them. The challenge to try and bring them all together under one canvas was huge. Nonetheless this Special Issue has tried.

While M. Peter Jayprakash elaborates on the diabolical ‘Antithetical Power Relations’ in India, Sudeep Basu reflects on the Tibetan ‘Paradigm of Exile’. Bertil Lintner has discoursed widely and deeply on ‘Conflict and Displacement in Burma’, while Subir Bhaumik has deliberated on the ‘Nobody’s People in Noman’s Land’ i.e. the Rohingyas. The UNHCR Office in New Delhi has also sent us a write-up highlighting their operations and the ‘Protection Challenges and Emerging Opportunities’ of refugee urbanisation. Incidentally the UNHCRs Urban Refugee Policy of 2009 has been criticized by much of the NGO and activist community for merely containing UN-speak on gender-mainstreaming and not particularly addressing the specific concerns of women and children at risk. Uttam Kumar Das also critiques the operations of the UNHCR in Bangladesh while elaborating on the refugee situation in that country that he labels as ‘Managing Refugees in a Mess.’ We are also expecting two more articles from Sri Lanka and Pakistan which we hope to upload over the weekend.

This issue along with events and news highlighted also has a review of the book ‘The Politics of Forced Migration: Conceptual, Operational and Legal Analysis’ edited by Nitza Nachmias and Goldstein Rami by Sucharita Sengupta.

The recent refugee crisis in Kyrgyzstan has yet again highlighted the growing regional ethnic disparities and dictatorial actions that continue to separate man from mankind. While current developments in forced migration research suggest that state fragility and forced migration, the economics of forced migration, environmental displacement, displaced groups with specific needs, and durable solutions are the areas for immediate relevance, the only overriding and essential emotion that can assuage any hurt and begin bridge any gaps is an acceptance of and tolerance towards the ‘Other’. It is only then that refugees around the world will truly begin to celebrate World Refugee Day themselves.


1 See upcoming report of the 2nd Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network’s Conference that was held in Bangkok in 2009.

Report Released on Crimes Against Humanity in Western Burma: The Situation of the Rohingyas

On 17th June, in Dublin, Ireland's Foreign Minister Micheal Martin officially launched the report on, which has been prepared by the Irish Centre for Human Rights. For those representing Rohingyas in asylum proceedings around the region, the report may be very useful.

Speaking at the launch of the Report, Minister Martin commended the work of the NUIG research team, stating that they have presented ‘compelling and credible evidence suggesting that crimes against humanity have indeed been committed by the Burmese authorities against the Rohingya minority group’. Noting the recommendation in the Report that the Security Council establish a Commission of Inquiry to determine whether there is a prima facie case that crimes against humanity have been committed, as well as similar recent comments by UN Special Rapporteur on Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, Minister Martin said that he fully supported these calls for all such alleged crimes to be formally investigated.

The Report is based on extensive open-source research and on a fact-finding mission to Burma, Thailand and Bangladesh conducted by experts in international criminal investigation. As well as interviewing organisations working in the region, investigators met with Rohingya victims in and around refugee camps in Bangladesh. The Rohingyas’ plight has been overlooked for years and the root causes of their situation still remain under-examined. The Irish Centre for
Human Rights’ Report identifies and discusses some of these causes. The team that prepared the report was headed by Nancie Prud'homme and Joe Powderly

For more, see the press release and the full report:

In Search of My Home

[A film by Sushmit Ghosh & Rintu Thomas || DV CAM/ 16:9/ 30 Minutes/ 2010]

In the world’s favorite democracy, live thousands of men, women and children with lost homes and forgotten names. Sheltering one of the largest refugee populations in the world, India still lacks a comprehensive domestic refugee law that could guarantee them their basic human needs and a life of dignity.

In Search of My Home is a journey with a Burmese and an Afghan family, as it explores the complexities in their everyday battle for survival. Weaving their emotional stories of hope and despair, love and loss, the film uses live-action, photography, music and text narratives to tell a story that is absent from India’s collective conscience and its mainstream media.

The film is being screened on 20th June, World Refugee Day at Vikaspuri for the Burmese community in New Delhi. The film is simultaneously being screened across many cities in North America, Europe and Asia.

Trailers, photographs, information and other interesting stuff on the film are on the film's Facebook page at:

DVD copies of the film are available at a nominal Rs. 100/ $2 and all funds raised are being shared equally between the two refugee families who are a part of this film.


‘Yordam, yordam’ or ‘help’ in Uzbek are the cries renting the air from the Kyrgyz side of the Uzbekistan-Kyrgystan border. Ethnic Uzbeks make up about 15 per cent of Kyrgyzstan's 5.5 million people but ever since ethnic riots broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan, particularly in the cities of Osh and Jalal-abad, more than a quarter million of them have been forced to flee.

•Kyrgyzstan's 5.3 million population is mainly made up of Kyrgyz (70%) ethnic Uzbeks (15%) and Russians (8%).
•About 50% of the Osh region's 1.2 million inhabitants are ethnic Uzbeks.
•About 40% of a population of one million in Jalal-abad region is ethnic Uzbeks.

While the Red Cross pegs the figure of flight higher at 80,000 refugees, according to the UN 75,000 have fled to Uzbekistan. It is also held that nearly 15,000 are still crowding around the border areas. Meanwhile UNHCR has also admitted that about 200,000 people are displaced inside the country. Unable to bear the burden of any more refugees, Uzbekistan has said that it is shutting its border with Kyrgystan. Meanwhile there are figures of at least 170 people who have died in rioting in Osh and Jalal-abad. The UNHCR is mounting an emergency airlift of supplies to assist Uzbekistan in dealing with the increasing refugee load. The situation is growing more serious as along with the fleeing ethnic Uzbeks there were also reports of Tajiks flocking to the border. Providing humanitarian aid is of utmost priority to these people.

More than four days of rioting has created tumult in this region that had last seen bloody ethnic clashes during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Survivors in refugee camps in Uzbekistan narrate how first mobs of Kyrgyz men roamed around streets of Uzbek neighbourhoods in cars with no numbers, followed by the military in personal armoured cars, firing and attacking ethnic Uzbeks and torching their houses. In a statement the office of Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that "It seems indiscriminate killings, including of children, and rapes have been taking place on the basis of ethnicity". Besides, according to UNICEF, 90 per cent of the refugees fleeing the violence were women, children and the elderly. Most of the women and children are also suffering from war trauma.

Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the deposed Kyrgyz President, in exile in Belarus, is largely accused of orchestrating this campaign of ethnic conflict. Bakiyev’s younger son, Maxim, had fled in a private plane to Britain where he claimed asylum and was held. The Kyrgyz interim government, that assumed power after overthrowing the President in April, has initially requested Russia for peacekeeping forces but later rescinded the request. The Russian President Dmitri Medvedev condemned the violence and said ‘tough action’ must be taken to stop the violence and bloodshed. Meanwhile the US has promised Kyrgyzstan’s interim government $800,000 in emergency aid funds and has dispatched Robert Blake, its special envoy, to the country.

The UN believes that these clashes were deliberate and claims that there is evidence that the violence was co-ordinated and began with five simultaneous attacks in the city of Osh. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said "it might be wrong to cast it, at least in origin, as an inter-ethnic conflict”.

Refugees and Antithetical Power Relations of India

M. Peter Jeyaprakash
[former Voluntary Repatriation Specialist UNHCR, Chennai. At present he is working as Individual Contractor for UNHCR, Chennai]


Refugees in India are a victim of a stalemate between the Government of India and the international community for a long time. It is imperative that we recognize the immensity of the situation, decipher the inhibitions, examine internal inconsistencies in the present context, and find new grounds for policy design in the humanitarian field.

The Present Refugee Situation

“There are new trends in forced displacement which are challenging for us all. The 1951 Convention responded to displacement due to persecution and war... These several trends are reinforcing and exacerbating each other, accelerating instability and displacement. While we have no plans to amend the 1951 Convention, we do need to discuss how we deal with the human rights impacts of these new forms of forced displacement. I hope that the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention next year will enable us to be the catalyst of such a debate”.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres - European Parliament, 28 April 2010
The High Commissioner, while acknowledging that there are new trends in forced displacement very clearly states that there are no plans to amend the 1951 Convention. He stressed that “we do need to discuss how we deal with the human rights impacts of these new forms of forced displacement”. Though this is a double bind situation for India, it is essential that countries of asylum like India form organized responses to refugee situations in view of ‘new trends in forced displacement’ without any coercion from outside.

We must note here that responses to refugee situations have changed in many countries with a record of restrictive measures towards refugees. In view such developments we cannot carry on with the status quo on Model National Law of Refugees. Recently, countries have started to speak in favour of refugees. The Archbishop of Canterbury during the CARA lecture (May 2010) on the topic “Enriching the Arguments: the Refugee Contribution to British Life”, argued in favour of regarding strangers as a gift rather than as a threat. Concurrently the High Commissioner in his recent address to the European Parliament spoke about the “resilience and resurgence of conflicts”. These two indications require that India take a fresh look at its policies towards refugees.

Refugees are not a Liability

The Refugee Council of Australia, in a report on the Economic, Civic and Social Contributions of Refugees and Humanitarian Entrants (February 2010), states that “Refugees make substantial contributions to their new country...... Refugees are often entrepreneurial as they face the need to set up and establish themselves in a new environment. One illustration of this was evident in the 2000 Business Review Weekly’s annual “Rich 200” list which showed that five of Australia’s eight billionaires were people whose families had originally come to the country as refugees” .

The report also cites that positive impact of refugees has been felt in the regional and rural areas of Australia which experience large scale “departures” in population and with it lose of skills, and business closures. Successful regional and rural refugee resettlement programmes helped to stimulate the economy through refugee labour. The report states that studies have failed to find a link between immigration and unemployment among the existing population (Productivity Commission 2006). This demonstrates that the world is gradually beginning to view a refugee as an asset than liability.

The State and the Humanitarian Blind Spot

There is something in the daily grind of the government machinery that is inhibiting the evolution of these experiences into an organized response. It is not the fear of the stranger but the fear of intrusion of the “outsider” (in this case the UNHCR). India has been under the grip of this fear since the days of the Bangladeshi crisis of 1971 which was evident in its reply to UN Secretary-General’s Aide Memoire (2nd August 1971) refuting reports that it was obstructing the return of refugees.

That was way back in 1971. Consider the recent foreign policy engagements by India. It has gradually disengaged from the large southern groups and become part of new groups like the G4, G15, G20 and G33. Besides these new developments India has allowed six international bilateral donors to assist NGOs directly. In all these foreign policy engagements India has upheld its national interest and had diametrically opposed positions to the agreements without fear of international interference in its internal matters. Being a member of the EXCOM of UNHCR since 1995, signing the 1951 Refugee Convention cannot be beyond the strengths with which India engaged with the rest of the above.

Incidental Statements and Perceived Threats on the 1951 Convention and Model Law

India is said to perceive six threats from the Convention. It should be noted that these threats were not outlined by the Government of India but expressed by various officials during various seminars and conferences on refugees. However, India would do well to sign the convention and make it non-Eurocentric and give way to Rights regime as it is the right regime: there is no means to circumvent that and negative reports should not be a deterrence towards this end.

UNHCR cannot intrude into matters that do not concern refugees as the convention is about the protection and safety of refugees and not about national security interests. And finally, a safety record of giving assistance to refugees cannot “guarantee a legal framework that would ensure that refugees and asylum seekers’ rights and duties are based on legal and humanitarian considerations” .These reasons formed the façade for India to keep out the ‘North’.

Perdre le Nord

Since the colonial times the south Asian countries have been vary of infringement on their sovereignty by the ‘northern countries’. Owing to this divide numerous South Asian countries have neither signed the 1951 Convention nor adopted any regional or national standard legal humanitarian approach to the evolving refugee situations. The recent attempt to bring the Refugees and Asylum Seekers (Protection) Bill before the Cabinet this March was also marked by skepticism .

The north-south divide is a reductive coupling and is fraught with hierarchical and ethnocentric connotations. It is a herd behavior which has blinded us from executing our responsibilities towards those who sought asylum from us. As Amartya Sen observes,
“There is something deeply debilitating about denying choice when choice exists, for it is an abdication of responsibility to consider and assess how one should think and what one should identify with. It is a way of falling prey to unreasoned shifts in alleged self-knowledge based on a false belief that one’s identity is to be discovered and accepted rather than examined and scrutinized” (Sen, 1999).

Therefore, we have to recognize that the choice exists, examine and scrutinize India’s stand on refugees and act upon it constructively.

Progress towards a Comprehensive Model Law

Plenty of arguments for adhering to the 1951 Convention and for the formulation and implementation of Model refugee Law exist and will continue to crowd our mind in the future. However, there is a studied silence on the part of the Government. This is not strange. Government has this kind of approach towards people displaced due to (besides forced displacement) development activities, environment degradation, real estate rural sweeps, communal atrocities, shifting borders of West Bengal, and many other resilient and resurgent conflicts. That is a huge case load and the present Model Law of Refugees is sketchy and lacking in detail on some of the provisions already outlined to engage with them.

Some of the missing features for serious consideration are non-discrimination, refugee seamen, movable and immovable property, artistic rights and industrial property, right to association, access to courts, transfer of assets, specimen travel document . The fact that these are lacking in the proposed Model Law brings to light the dichotomy suffered by the Government between love for humanity and hatred of human beings as noted by Ranabir Samaddar –
“We have here the classic problem of Dostoevsky; we love humanity, but we hate human beings. The system that builds up on convention, protocol, office, role of special rapporteur, budget, grants, relief-rehabilitation-resettlement allocation, inspection, determination and repatriation, is one of love for humanity and often of hatred of human beings” (Samaddar, 2001).

Therefore, let us prove that our system which is strengthened by tradition, culture, freedom and diversity can decimate the myths of implausibility of engaging constructively with the refugees on the Indian shores. Refugees are special and through them we have greater lessons to learn. The resilience and resurgence of human spirit is greater than the resilience and resurgence of conflicts. Ceteris paribus, we only need to be ready with the professional means to be of assistance towards that end.


1 Literature review - Economic, Civic and Social contributions of Refugees Humanitarian Entrants by Refugee Council of Australia, February 2010.
2 The statement within quotes made by Montserrat Feixas Vihe, Chief of Mission, UNHCR, India –
4 Convention relating to the status of refugees, 1951.


Chimni, B. S. (2007). International Refugee Law, A Reader. New Delhi: Sage Publications.
Samaddar, R. (2001). Power, Fear, Ethics. Refugee Watch .
Sen, A. (1999). Reason Before Identity. Oxford University Press.
Zutshi, R. T. (Ed.). Refugees and the Law. New Delhi: Human Rights Law Network.

Reflections on the Tibetan Paradigm of Exile

Sudeep Basu
[Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion, National Law School of India University, Bangalore]

Articulating Exilic Tibet

In the introduction to the edited book, “Exile as Challenge: The Tibetan Diaspora,” Bernstorff and Von Welck remarked that the Tibetan Community in exile since 1959 has performed three remarkable feats, notwithstanding the historical fact that they had remained secluded from the rest of the world during the period known as “The Great Game”1 in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These are “First, individual Tibetans and their families stand on their own feet economically and are able to maintain themselves. Second, a school system has been built up which has transformed a large illiterate society into a fully literate society within two generations-a testament to the political will. Finally, the Dalai Lama introduced democratization and reduced his own power step by step, so much so, that in 2001 the Prime Minister of the Government in Exile (Chief Kalon) is no longer appointed by the Dalai Lama but directly elected by the Tibetan diaspora” (Bernstorff and Von Welck 2004: 1).

The general perception about the Tibetans in India is that they are hardworking (Saklani 1984). The decision to create settlements where the refugees could rebuild their lives has been exemplary (Bernstorff and Von Welck 2004: 1). This contrasts with other refugee groups who have lived in provisional camps for decades entirely dependent on assistance.2 Such commendations are not uncommon and have been a consequence of the general tendency to take sides in writing about Tibet and the Tibetan Diaspora at the expense of a critical assessment of the Tibetan issue. Such a tendency has arisen partly from the importation of the functionalist model to the study of refugees (Stein 1981 and Keller 1975). What is recurrent in this literature is the assumption that to become uprooted and removed from a national community is automatically to lose one’s identity, tradition and culture (Malkki 1995). This has had a marked categorical effect upon the study of Tibetan refugees wherein any cultural reemergence or the presences of past cultural practices is interpreted as evidence of cultural continuity that gives an image of a refugee society that is supposedly stable and orderly. The presumed linearity- of then and now; of tradition and modernity in the use of these concepts to understand social change among Tibetan refugees has often led to unexamined conclusions. The generally uncomplicated celebration of political solidarity, economic success and cultural preservation in exile in much of the works on Tibetan refugees is in accord with the romantic image of Tibet. Such public representations of Tibetanness have tended to smoothly gloss over the striking unevenness of experience encompassed in Tibetan refugee lives in the diaspora. Keila Diehl’s book is an exception in this regard. She asserts that it is crucial to explore the “not-saids” in this exiled community and reiterates that her intention is “not to dwell on the negative aspects of the Tibetan refugee community; rather, it is to make more believable the accomplishments of this group by complementing those accounts with the tales of disillusionment, in-group tensions and change that make those accomplishments meaningful” (Diehl 2002: 20).

Generating Meaning of Life in Exile

For Tibetan refugees, the dominant framework for thinking about and attempting to understand exile is the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation and its promise of eventual release through good action and compassion. The idea of “taking refuge” is also, in addition to beliefs in reincarnation, a cornerstone of Tibetan culture. Since the 1950s, the idea of “taking refuge” has taken on a highly politicized level of meaning for Tibetans. Inspired by the Dalai Lama, many Tibetans therefore work hard through focused spiritual practice to regard the predicament of exile as a source of inner strength, which Kiela Diehl sees as an approach reminiscent of what Edward Said calls the “redemptive view of exile” (Said 1984: 47-55). In an effort to characterize how Tibetan refugees deal with the experience of exile, it is not sufficient to stop at the formal Buddhist belief and practice. While the Dalai Lama asserts that when you are a monk, any place that is habitable becomes your country, most lay Tibetans in exile, as Diehl has observed in her study feel deeply out of place and often fearful in India. The Tibetan refugee case is no exception to this tendency since the orientation towards homeland has dominated most scholarship and discourse about Tibetan exiles. Few studies grapple with the Indian context in which the exile experience takes place. Focused as Tibetans and their Western supporters are on preserving and gaining access to an ideal Tibetan way of life, India must it seems be suppressed and reduced to a temporary and unfortunate backdrop for the struggle with the result that a blind eye has been turned to the myriad ways in which India and Indians are in fact integral to any understanding of contemporary Tibetan culture or identity in exile (Diehl 2002: 110).

Since 1959, Tibetan refugees have been engaged in an ongoing confrontation of representations with Chinese officials in which the two sides compete to legitimize their own representations of Tibetan history as well as current events in Tibet. In recent years, a new dimension to the confrontation has emerged with the display of culture becoming one of the most important means through which Tibetan and Chinese claims to legitimacy are contested. Tibet activists’ use of cultural and religious performances for political purposes reflects the global emergence of “culture” as a favored idiom of political mobilization for indigenous, minority and diasporic groups. The narrative of Tibetan culture put forward by Tibet House is congruent with this traditional Tibetan religio-political framework and with the diasporic self-consciousness about Tibetanness, which emerged after 1959. From the earliest years of exile, Tibetan refugees were aware of the need to preserve Tibetan Buddhism not only as a valued set of practices but also as the basis for reconstituting a collective Tibetan identity in exile. The Dalai Lama constantly emphasized the need for refugees to maintain their traditions not only for their own sake but for the sake of Tibetans living in Tibet. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly claimed that for him, the Tibet issue is not a political matter but a spiritual struggle. By equating the Tibet issue with the preservation of Tibet’s spiritual heritage, a particular construction of Tibetan religion and culture itself becomes the object of political action.


1 The “Great Game” involved the countries of British India, Russia and China.
2 One is reminded of the refugee camps in parts of Africa, such as Sudan and Tanzania, where refugees have to live out their lives for decades in camps.
3 Tibet was for many a “forbidden” land, by virtue of its vague political status nestled among three great empires, its naturally enclosing topography and conscious efforts by Tibetans to remain uncontaminated by the outside world.
4 Kiela Diehl arrives at this conclusion despite the results of one of Saklani’s survey questions to which 75% of the Tibetan refugees who responded chose “India Only” as their choice of country of domicile (Saklani 1984: 356).


Bernstorff, Dagmar and Hubertus Von Welck, eds. 2004. Exile as Challenge: The Tibetan Diaspora. New Delhi: Orient Longman.
Diehl, Keila. 2002. Echoes from Dharamsala: Music in the Life of a Refugee Community. California: California University Press.
Keller, S.L. 1975. Uprooting and Social Change: The Role of Refugees in Development. Delhi: Manohar Book Service.
Malkki, Liisa. 1995. Refugees and Exile: From “Refugee Studies” to the National Order of Things. Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 495-523.
Said, Edward. 1984. Mind of Winter: Reflections on Life in Exile. Harper’s Magazine.
Saklani, Girija. 1984. The Uprooted Tibetans in India: A Sociological Study of Continuity and Change. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.
Stein, Barry N. 1981. The Refugee Experience: Defining the Parameters of a Field of Study. International Migration Review 15, 1: 320-30.

Conflict and Displacement in Burma

Bertil Lintner
[former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of ten books on ethnicity and politics in Burma and other countries in the region. He is currently with the Asia Pacific Media Services]

Decades of civil war, insurgencies and counterinsurgency campaigns as well as gross economic mismanagement by successive military-controlled regimes have driven millions of people from their homes in Burma, either as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) or as refugees or stateless migrant workers to neighbouring countries. The total number of IDPs is impossible to ascertain, but refugee organisations which are engaged in cross border relief operations on the Thai-Burma frontier believe they number in the hundreds of thousands. On the Thai side of the border, at least 500,000 people are living in refugee camps and less formal, makeshift settlements which resemble squatter villages. Many of them are ethnic Karen, who have fled fighting between ethnic Karen guerrillas and the government’s forces, or ethnic Shan who have escaped to Thailand because of the civil war in their part of the country. Fighting between various separatist rebel movements and the central government broke out shortly after Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948, and is still continuing.

In addition, migrant workers from Burma rank the highest in numbers of human-trafficking victims in Thailand. On June 4 this year, the New Delhi and Kolkata-based Burmese news group Mizzima quoted Sompong Sakaew, director of the Thai NGO the Labour Rights Promotion Network, as saying that 700,000 foreign workers have registered officially with Thai authorities. A recent estimate, however, put the actual number at more than three million, and they are mainly from Burma. Many are employed in Thailand’s fishing industry, on construction sites or as lowly-paid factory workers. Others are street vendors, and many young women are kept in slave-like conditions in Thailand’s many urban and rural brothels. Transnational networks use Burmese children as beggars in the streets of Bangkok — and most of the money they are able to collect ends up in the hands of the criminals, not the children.

There is also an unknown number of mostly ethnic Chin refugees in the north-eastern Indian state of Mizoram. In January 2009, Human Rights Watch released a 104-page report titled “We Are Like Forgotten People: The Chin People of Burma: Unsafe in Burma, Unprotected in India,” which states that “the Chin Population in Mizoram is estimated to be as high as 100,000, about 20 per cent of the total Chin population in [Burma’s] Chin State.” The Chin call themselves Zomi, or Mizo the other way round, and the two peoples are closely related, which often makes it difficult to tell a Burmese Chin from a Mizo from India. But once settled in India, the Chins, or Zomis, nevertheless remain stateless. According to Human Rights Watch, “the Chin face discrimination and threats of forces return by Mizo voluntary associations in collusion with the Mizoram authorities.” Only about 1,800 Chins have made it to New Delhi, where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, has an office, which makes it possible for them to have their refugee claims decided and be considered for resettlement in third countries.

Human Rights Watch also states that as many as 30,000 Chins have fled to Malaysia hoping to obtain UNHCR recognition — in addition to the tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingyas who already are there as cheap labour. Even more of Rohingyas, natives of Burma’s Arakan or Rakhine State, are living in south-eastern Bangladesh, in camps or small villages near the border. Both the predominantly Christian Chins and the Muslim Rohingyas complain about religious discrimination in their homeland. They claim they are often driven from their land, and used as forced labour by the Burmese army.

The Rohingyas especially are vulnerable in a predominantly Buddhist country, where they have been made scapegoats for the government’s failed economic policies. Even many pro-democracy activists in Burma refuse to recognise the Rohingyas as an “indigenous people”, claiming they are “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. While the Rohingyas speak the Chittagonian dialect of Bengali, they have been living on what now is the Burmese side of the border for centuries. In Chin State, Christian pastors have been forced to worship in Buddhist temples, and the refugees allege that the authorities are destroying churches, crosses and other religious symbols as well as restricting the printing and importing of Christian bibles and literature.

The number of refugees and migrants from Burma in China is unknown, but there are substantial communities of Burmese of various nationalities living in the south-western province of Yunnan, mainly in border towns such as Ruili, Tengchong, Mangshih and Jinghong. Most of the refugees and migrant workers there are Kachin or Shan, and can quite easily mingle with their ethnic cousins in China, called Jingpo and Dai respectively.

There is no easy solution to Burma’s multitude of refugee problems. Repatriation is not an option as long as the civil war continues in several parts of the country — and, some would argue, as long as the country remains under repressive military rule. A general election, scheduled for this year, is unlikely to change Burma’s military-dominated power structure; rather, the election is designed to legitimise the military’s hold on power, perhaps with a few token civilians in the new national assembly.

Further, Thailand does not recognise people from Burma as refugees but refers to them as “displaced persons”, which makes their situation extremely precarious. India, although reluctantly tolerating the presence of refugees from Burma, has not signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, which means that Burmese refugees in India lack basic protection of their rights under international agreements.

In recent years, some Western countries such as the United States, Canada, Sweden, Norway and Finland have accepted substantial numbers or people from the camps in Thailand — and some from India as well — for resettlement in their respective countries. But a lasting solution to the problem cannot be found until and unless there is a meaningful political settlement inside Burma, between the military government and the pro-democracy opposition, and between whatever government is in power and the country’s many ethnic minorities. On the other hand, it is not realistic to expect a solution to any of these problems within the foreseeable future. Burma’s refugee problem is here to stay for many years to come, perhaps even decades.

Rohingyas: Nobody’s People in Noman’s Land

Subir Bhaumik
[BBC's Correspondent for East and Northeast India based in Calcutta]

Bangladesh's new Awami League government has decided to send back to Myanmar all of the 30,000 odd Rohingya refugees staying in the "official camps" between Cox's Bazar and Teknaf, creating uncertainties for the beleaguered ethnic minority that has been victim of the one of the worst cases of displacement in post-colonial Asia .

In 1978, nearly 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, following the ‘Nagamin’ (‘Dragon King’) operation of the Myanmar army. This operation apparently sought to “scrutinise each individual living in the state, designating citizens and foreigners in accordance with the law and taking actions against foreigners who have filtered into the country illegally." But on ground, this became a brutal military campaign targeting Rohingya civilians and what followed were widespread killings, rape and destruction of mosques and other forms of religious persecution.

During 1991-92 a fresh exodus of Rohingyas started with more than a quarter of a million Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh. They reported widespread forced labour, as well as summary executions, torture, and rape. Rohingyas were forced to work without pay by the Burmese army on infrastructure and economic projects, often under harsh conditions. Many other human rights violations occurred in the context of forced labour of Rohingya civilians by the security forces.

Despite earlier efforts by the UN, the vast majority of Rohingya refugees have remained in Bangladesh, unable to return because of the displayed hostility of the Myanmar military junta. But now they are facing problems in Bangladesh as well where they do not receive support from the government any longer. As a result, thousands of Rohingyas have been undertaking hazardous boat journeys to Southeast Asia (even as far as Australia), looking for work and livelihood.

Over the years thousands of Rohingya also have fled to Thailand. There are roughly 111,000 refugees housed in 9 camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. There have been charges that groups of them have been shipped and towed out to open sea from Thailand, and left there. In February 2009 there was evidence of the Thai army towing boatloads of Rohingyas out to sea. I investigated and did a series of stories in the BBC exposing how the Rohingyas were put on boats after their engines were removed and were left to die on high seas.

A few hundreds of them were rescued by Indian and Indonesian coast guards, after which they narrated harrowing stories of being captured and beaten by the Thai military, and then abandoned at open sea. By the end of February there were reports that of a group of 5 boats were towed out to open sea, of which 4 boats sank in a storm, and 1 boat washed up on the shore. On February 12, 2009 , two weeks after the BBC exposes, Thailand's prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said there were "some instances" in which Rohingya people were pushed out to sea and promised an enquiry

All these Rohingyas had paid a fortune to dubious agents in Bangladesh who organised the deadly boat journeys. But leaders of the community in Bangladesh now say more and more Rohingyas will be undertaking these deadly voyages because they are left with no option after Bangladesh decided it will start repatriating the Rohingya refugees back top Myanmar. In the words of Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, these refugees will be sent back in "the soonest possible time."

The Awami League government wants to send back the Rohingyas because it feels this community provides the maximum number of recruits to Islamic terror groups active in the country. The Rohingya armed groups, which traditionally received support from the Bangladesh military intelligence during the country's military regimes, are also feeling the heat. Most have been disarmed and many of their top leaders have fled the country and settled in UK or Saudi Arabia. In fact, top Awami League leaders are spearheading the anti-Rohingya resistance committee recently set up in Cox's Bazar - Teknaf area. The whole idea is to make it difficult for the Rohingyas to live in southeastern Bangladesh (between Chittagong and Teknaf), so that they are forced to return to Myanmar.

"The Rohingya jehadis have fought in Palestine, Kashmir, as far as Chechnya. They are the single most dangerous community living in our country because they provide support and recruits to the cause of Islamic terror. If we have to crush the Islamic fundamentalist forces down south, the Rohingyas must be made to go back to Burma," says Shamsul Arefin, a retired military official who advises the Awami League on security issues. So Bangladesh has now said they will begin by sending back about 9000 Rohingya refugees.

But according to Kristy Crabtree, an American researcher who has worked on the Rohingya refugees, “promoting the Rohingyas' repatriation as the only possible solution to their displacement overlooks an internationally recognized norm of protection for those seeking refuge. This is the principle of non-refoulement. Basically, this principle prohibits nations from expelling or returning a refugee to a place where their freedom will be threatened or there is a risk of persecution." This principle is recognized in the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and applies to refugees that are formally recognized as well as those who lack an official status, she says.

Although Bangladesh is not a party to the Convention, the principle still applies because non-refoulement is an international custom. This means that the principle is a “general practice accepted as law” because it has fulfilled the two elements necessary to become customary international law: consistent State practice and opinio juris. The latter means it is a practice recognized by states as obligatory.

Having satisfied these requirements, the principle of non-refoulement is considered customary international law, and therefore, binding on all states regardless of their adoption of the 1951 Convention. Furthermore, the principle is defended in other treaties which Bangladesh has signed, such as the Convention Against Torture and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This principle should protect the Rohingya from forced or coerced repatriation to Burma.

"Bangladesh's plan for Rohingya repatriation not only goes against customary international law but her request for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to pursue socio-economic development in Myanmar also falls short. The reason for the flight of the Rohingya into neighboring countries is not the result of a socio-economic problem. The root cause of their displacement is the lack of recognition of their citizenship rights in Myanmar. Without these national rights, their other basic rights, such as freedom to travel or marry or practice their faith, are routinely violated, and the Rohingya are subject to other gross human rights abuses such as forced labor and property confiscation," says Crabtree.

There is enough justification in the suggestion that until and unless Myanmar recognises the citizenship rights of the Rohingyas, they should not be forced to return.

Resettlement of Rohingya refugees must continue in countries like the US, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand. Funding must also support local villagers living in the area surrounding the camps. This is necessary to change the local perception of the refugee camps from being a financial burden for the country to infusing the area with international aid and development. But if the Rohingyas are seen as "potential Islamic terrorists", this may also suffer.

In fact, the Rohingyas are victims of this "outsider" image. Buddhist Myanmar sees them as a migrant Muslim community who came to live in the Arakans from the East Bengal coast -- a complete distortion of history of the fluid Chittagong-Arakan coastal region ( a bit of a melting pot) where Islam came as the "handmaiden of commerce" and not at the head of an all conquering army. Bangladesh sees them (at least the present regime) as Burmese Muslims who pose a threat to its secular fabric and stability. The West sees them as potential jihadis. In south east Asia, they are seen as "illegal migrants" who should be detected and thrown out. And elements in the Islamic world see them as useful recruits for an extreme cause but quite expendable. They are indeed nobody's people in a noman's land and the world does not realise that it is the uncertainty of their existence that drives them to extreme steps -- be it the hazardous boat journeys from Bangladesh to southeast Asia or the plunge into the world of jihad.

Managing Refugees in a Mess

Uttam Kumar Das
[Advocate (Attorney at Law) in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, is a human rights researcher, trainer and practitioner]

Bangladesh has a long history with refugees’ lives and experiences. The country became independent in 1971 that saw the creation of a great number of 10 million refugees (1 out of every 7 person of that time population in the territory) who had taken temporary shelter in neighboring India for nine months.

Since its independence, Bangladesh has been a refugee producing and hosting country at the same time. The decade-long unrest and militancy in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) had produced exoduses of displaced populations and refugees - a section of them crossed the border and took shelter again in India.

The history of the ethnic Rohingyas from the neighboring Myanmar (formerly Burma) seeking refuge in the territory of Bangladesh goes for more than centuries. However, their recent influx to Bangladesh following the ethnicity and religion-based persecutions on the Rohingyas by the military regime (in Myanmar) can be traced back to 1978 and 1991-1992. Those who came in 1978 could return in the following years through bilateral discussions and negotiations between Bangladesh and Myanmar. However, it is alleged that a good number of the then “refugees” had been forced to return; and most of them eventually came back to Bangladesh (in following years) taking advantage of porous borders.

During 1991-1992, a record number of 258,800 Rohingyas took refuge in Bangladesh. Initially, the Bangladeshi government registered them and provided them with shelter in temporary tents in the bordering districts of Cox’s Bazaar and Bandarban. Later on, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) came into operation at the invitation from Bangladesh government.

According to official records, so far 237,000 Rohingyas have “voluntarily” returned to Myanmar. However, repatriation has been stalled since 2006. However, locals believe that most of the Rohingyas who are in the “Repatriation List” have eventually returned to Bangladesh and mixed with local population in the bordering districts of Cox’s Bazaar, Bandarban, and elsewhere like Chittagong, Barguna, and Patuakhali. Rohingyas are similar to some of the local population with regard to their language, ethnicity, and religion.

While officials of the government and UNHCR claim that there are now 28,000 registered Rohingya refugees in two government-managed camps, however other estimates of the number of Rohingyas in Bangladesh vary between 200,000 to 500,000. (None knows the exact number indeed).

Bangladesh is an exceptional country (like others in the region) which has been hosting refugees for years thanks to the excellent generosity of the government and people of Bangladesh. However, the management of refugee operation has been going on without any legal and policy framework. It has been on the basis of ad hoc measures, which sometimes becomes messy and discriminatory while extending protection to deserving ones.

Bangladesh is not party to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951 and its Protocol of 1967. As mentioned, there is also no national law dealing with asylum and refugees. It is Article 31 of the Bangladeshi Constitution that provides a flat-guarantee for the “equal protection of law” for a citizen and a non-citizen alike, as long as on the territory of the country. But this provision lacks a judicial interpretation which could be translated for the benefit of asylum seeker and refugee.

The Rohingyas are in fact, “granted refugee status” through an executive decision by the Government of Bangladesh. This is considered as “arbitrary or discriminatory” given the absence of any legal sanction. The same grant never happens to any other groups taking refuge in Bangladesh. However, the government of Bangladesh has reportedly set a “May 1994 cut-off date,” which means that no Rohingya entering Bangladesh after that timeline would get refugee status. If there is really such a decision that would clearly be a violation of the principles of the international refuge or human rights law and the Constitution of Bangladesh as according to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 those who are fleeing persecution have rights " seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution". This persecution could be subjective or objective. However, there is no time bar on this.

Thus, in the absence of a framed law, there are reported discriminatory and arbitrary practices between and among the refugee groups on the ground. Sometimes, they are influenced by the vested interests of a section of relevant government officials or NGOs, local influences, presence of corruption, and abuse and misuse of powers among others. This is also dependent on which political party happens to be in power.

The role of UNHCR in Bangladesh is also not beyond questions. Some of its field level staff members are accused of discouraging refugees to repatriate. Under the so-called urban refugee program the UNHCR Office in Dhaka has been receiving and processing applications for asylum in Bangladesh (in the absence of a state-run mechanism this agency is doing this, and government has no monitoring and control over this). With regard to Myanmar, the UNHCR caseloads mainly comprise of Rakhine and Chin populations fleeing from persecution. The number is around 400.

However, it (UNHCR) is not allegedly processing any application from Rohingya asylum seekers from Myanmar despite there being valid reason/s to prove persecution. (UNHCR process application if someone introduces him/herself even as a “Burmese Muslim,” however, not as a Rohingya).

The UN agency is reportedly doing this referring to the “decision of the host government.” Then, questions arise that if so, why is UNHCR really here? Is the duty of UNHCR to comply with a “decision” of a government which is contrary to the norms of international human rights laws? This practice of UNHCR has amounted to the violation of the core principle of the UN’s Convention of 1951.

Given the limitations in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, (which does not actually cover the complex refugee dimensions of the South, burden sharing, and emerging issues like the climate refugees), Bangladesh should look into the option of adopting a comprehensive national law on asylum and refugee supported by a well-structured policy framework. Also, there is a pressing need for a regional legal framework on asylum and refugee protection.

However, mere adoption of a law will not work unless it is implemented effectively. That is why there is a need for a pool of trained manpower to deal with the issue. This would range from judges, lawyers, members of law enforcement agencies, policy makers, academics, social workers among others.

Bangladesh should also look into registering all Rohingyas and other Myanmar nationals (nationals from other countries as well) staying on its soil. A section of the government officials believe that the registration of the Rohingyas would pave the way for more influx of the Rohingyas into Bangladesh leading to the international community to urge for their subsequent recognition as refugees. But this is ridiculous; that is why the officials concerned need to understand the matter through gaining knowledge on the subject, related to national and international laws and obligations, security and strategic issues, negotiation skills among others. Rohingyas are indeed residing in the territory of the country and surviving on our resources. Then, what is the problem in listing them. This listing (off course a comprehensive one with detailed profile) would pave the way for the government to bargain on related matters with counterparts including Myanmar.

Besides, the Rohingya problem is not merely a national issue of Myanmar and Bangladesh. It has both regional and international dimensions. That is why its solution also depends on regional and international approaches. Bangladesh should head for that direction.

Refugee Urbanisation : Protection Challenges and Emerging Opportunities

UNHCR, New Delhi

With increased urbanisation, more and more refugees and asylum seekers are moving to cities and towns. Nearly half of the 10.5 million refugees and 1 million asylum seekers under UNHCR’s protection live in cities and towns and a large proportion of them are expected to become permanent urban residents.

Refugees are logically drawn towards cities and towns as places promising better security and opportunity. The reality, however, is very different. In the absence of socio-economic support, safe housing, basic identity documents and necessary survival skills, refugees often find themselves ‘excluded’ in urban environments.

UNHCR’s Policy on Urban Refugees

UNHCR’s long experience in working with urban refugees bears testimony to the many difficulties they face in an urban context as increasing security concerns have led to tightening of border controls and shrinking of the global humanitarian space.

Violence and exploitation largely stem from living on the margins of poverty in dispersed urban areas. Constant competition for scarce resources and negative perceptions about refugees lead to clashes between local communities and refugees. Social ills including substance abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence etc are widely reported among refugee communities.

As observed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Antonio Guterres:
The plight of refugees and others of concern in urban areas cannot be treated in isolation but needs to be responded to in the broader context of the urban poor. The humanitarian community needs to reassess its paradigm of assistance in urban areas. Humanitarian actors in urban areas need to determine how community-based and bottom-up initiatives can be better supported.

UNHCR’s first global policy document on ‘urban refugees’ published in 1997 did not go as far as expected towards finding solutions for this group. A revised version of this policy was released in 2009.

The salient features of the new policy are as follows:
1.Rights of refugees and UNHCR and state responsibilities towards them are not affected by their location, their means of arrival or status.
2.Protection space for urban refugees should be maximized.
3.Protection of urban refugees is a shared responsibility between states, municipal authorities, communities, humanitarian agencies and civil society.

The policy is already being implemented in several UNHCR operations across the world, including India.

Refugees Under UNHCR Protection in New Delhi

India is not party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol and does not have a domestic refugee protection framework. Based on a long tradition of hospitality, the government of India grants asylum to approximately 200,000 refugees from Tibet and Sri Lanka and generally respects the principle of non-refoulement for holders of UNHCR documentation.

UNHCR’s operation in India, based in New Delhi, works with individual refugees and asylum seekers from non-neighbouring countries as well as Myanmar. As of 31 May 2010, there were 13,485 refugees under UNHCR’s protection, primarily from Afghanistan and Myanmar and in smaller numbers from countries as diverse as Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Palestine (ex-Iraq), Sudan, Eritrea, etc, mostly residing in New Delhi. UNHCR also has a small presence in Chennai to support the voluntary repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees.

The number of asylum seekers under UNHCR’s mandate has nearly doubled in the last year, from 4,206 at the end of 2008 to 7,344 in May 2010. To deal with this upward trend, UNHCR outsourced registration of newly arrived asylum seekers to an implementing partner in July 2009. Asylum seekers are now registered within two to three weeks of approaching UNHCR; a vast improvement from the eight to nine month waiting period for registration previously.

Once declared as a refugee in accordance with UNHCR’s refugee status determination procedures, refugees receive a basic subsistence allowance from UNHCR for a short period. UNHCR is committed to use its limited resources in the best possible manner and is gradually shifting towards provision of targeted assistance to refugees with specific needs.

In line with UNHCR’s urban refugee policy, UNHCR in India aims to strengthen refugees’ coping mechanisms in an urban environment by providing language lessons in Hindi and English, vocational training and promoting self-reliance and livelihood opportunities. Although refugees do not have the legal right to work in India and are not issued work permits, they have limited employment options in the informal sector where nearly 92 per cent of the Indian workforce is employed.

An in-depth livelihoods assessment was conducted in 2009 in order to better understand the urban livelihoods situation and to develop adequate livelihood support strategies. UNHCR along with its partner runs livelihood support programmes for refugees in New Delhi such as the KOSHISH project, an apparel manufacturing and retail unit and other income generation activities such as manufacturing of paper bags and plates, bedcovers, cushion covers, table napkins, wall-hangings, mobile phone pouches, candles etc.

Due to a dramatic rise in the number of asylum seekers approaching UNHCR in the recent past, they have to wait for long periods before their refugee status is determined. UNHCR’s efforts are geared towards bridging the gap in services provided to refugees and asylum seekers under UNHCR protection, with particular emphasis on ensuring real access to government education and healthcare services for all. Asylum seekers like refugees have access to language training, counseling support and legal aid services provided by UNHCR.

Since refugee and asylum seeker parents are reluctant to enrol their children in government schools for a variety of reasons, UNHCR is working closely with its partners to create awareness among communities through targeted education campaigns to encourage more refugee and asylum seeker children to attend government schools. The enactment of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act in April 2010 has further enhanced the possibility of these children attending government schools.

UNHCR runs crèches for children between the ages of 1-5 years in areas where most refugees live and work. These crèches, while affording a safe environment for children while their parents work or are engaged in other learning activities, also provides them with a level of pre-school education which will eventually allow them to join the Indian educational system. UNHCR also provides bridge lessons to assist children in joining Indian schools and tuition classes to school going children. Children above the age of 12 years also have the option of enrolling in the national open school system.

Despite having access to affordable government health care facilities in New Delhi, refugees and asylum seekers prefer private healthcare services, which are costlier and may not be as effective. The logic that informs UNHCR’s global health policy is
When health services are of adequate quality and used by the national host populations, the use of public health systems is preferred. However, in some countries these systems are not functioning adequately and citizens do not use them. In these circumstances, UNHCR may have to seek other alternatives such as non-profit, NGO, community-based, faith-based and private services.

Moreover, the assessment, monitoring and evaluation of health needs of refugees in an urban setting are never easy due to the dispersed nature of the population. UNHCR is in the process of strengthening its health outreach facilities and establishing a strong health information system. As in the case of financial assistance, UNHCR prioritises its efforts and allocates its limited resources towards the provision of health services to those refugees and asylum seekers whose needs are most urgent.

UNHCR hopes that these newly introduced measures will go a long way in preserving and enhancing the protection space for refugees and asylum seekers through effective access to basic services and strengthened livelihood support.


World Refugee Day, 2010

"They took my HOME but they can't take my FUTURE"

World Refugee Day celebrated on the 20th of June, is a tribute to the courage and dignity of refugees worldwide. This year, the theme for World Refugee Day is, "Home" in recognition of the plight of more than 40 million uprooted people around the world: “They took my HOME but they can’t take my FUTURE”. Around 10.5 million of them are refugees of special concern to UNHCR. World Refugee Day has become an annual celebration marked by a variety of events in over a hundred countries.

World Refugee Day was first celebrated in June 2001, with a spectacular sound and light show at the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. This year, the Empire State Building in New York, the ancient Colosseum in Rome and the bridge across the Ibar River in Mitrovica, Kosovo will be lit in blue as a sign of respect and solidarity for refugees.

World Refugee Day provides an opportunity for UNHCR to thank those individuals and nations that have opened their doors and their hearts to refugees. In India, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) celebrates the day with refugees and asylum seekers, through various cultural events that are held in New Delhi. Organised by UNHCR's implementing partners in areas where refugees and asylum seekers live, this is a platform to share their culture and traditions with their friends and neighbours.

A Public Lecture titled "The Future of Human Rights in a Home Away from Home: Towards Rethinking the Right to have Human Rights" will be delivered by Professor Upendra Baxi, Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Warwick and University of Delhi, at Casuarina Hall, India Habitat Centre at 6.30 p.m on Monday. 21st June 2010. be delivered by Professor Upendra Baxi, Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Warwick and University of Delhi, at Casuarina Hall, India Habitat Centre at 6.30 p.m on Monday. 21st June 2010.

Nitza Nachmias and Goldstein Rami (ed.) The Politics of Forced Migration: Conceptual, Operational and Legal Analysis (Publish America, USA: 2004)

Sucharita Sengupta
[Research Associate at the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group]

Forced Migration - its causes, implications and challenges continue to pose serious threat to nation states, their sovereignty and governability. Lacunas can still be sighted amidst the efforts by different International Organizations in providing aid to the displaced. Worst perhaps is the political implication that often leads to unequal distribution of aid and rehabilitation following a forced eviction. Even more vulnerable is the condition of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who suffer from a lack of comprehensive policy and continue to live within the jurisdiction of the state in which they were displaced. Often they lack adequate infrastructure to cross borders towards a new destination. Hence, all these factors, combined, call for a renewed analysis of the conceptual, operational and legal frameworks of terms like ‘Forced Migration’, ‘Refugees’ and ‘IDPs’.

This is precisely what Nitza Nachmias and Rami Goldstein have attempted, by compiling a wide array of issues in the various chapters of the book entitled The Politics of Forced Migration: Conceptual, Operational and Legal Analysis. The authors through the chapters of the book argue in favour of a new international legal paradigm. Roberta Cohen writes in the Foreword that there is need of a better international system which would be able to address many of the humanitarian emergencies that today’s world produces, specifically millions of uprooted people (pg 12). She elucidates further, that the problem of IDPs is much larger than that of the refugees as the number of IDPs has steadily increased over the years. A new international system is needed to deal strictly with state sovereignty. She further goes on to say that there are some inherent problems with the 1951 Refugee Convention which again reaffirm the need for a new and a more active international system. The Convention, Cohen continues, is inadequate in the present scenario since it “is based on fear of persecution” (pg-13) which fails to capture the refugee experience in the present scenario. During the mid sixties, the 1951 Convention was unable to address majority of the refugees assisted by the UNHCR. So the need of a new approach is hardly over emphasized.

The book is divided into three halves. The first deals with concepts and theories related to ‘Forced Migration’, the second puts these theories into practice by studying various cases and the third examines the possibility of future prospects and constraints of ‘Forced Migration’.

Chapters One to Four put together four theoretical essays stressing on the need of humanitarian interventions and their outcomes. Key concepts like ‘right to return’, ‘resettlement’ and ‘repatriation’ are central to the problem of Forced Migration and hence analysed in these four chapters. Allan James starts his essay “Analytical Observations on Forced Migration” by exploring the meaning of the term ‘Forced Migration’. Ample ambiguity prevails around the meaning of the term. There are a number of reasons for which people are forced to migrate but whether all these fall under this broad concept forms the crux of the chapter. James enumerates the different times when people are compelled to leave their ‘home’ like when they are at gun point, when they fear a threat to life or in case of a civil war (pg 39). However the problem lies in a lack of consensus regarding the causes of Forced Migration and its implications in humanitarian intervention. Problems also arise with questions as to what extent these interventions could be allowed so that they do not infringe upon the sovereignty of states.

James has meticulously put forward his arguments but some of the arguments could have been better substantiated through exemplification, particularly when he is explaining in detail the various causes of forced migration (pgs 40-45). Again to state, “… forced migration seems to be a recurring feature in human history. One must not overemphasize this; it by no means dominates the scene…” (pg 61) is really problematic. Forced migration, particularly internal displacement is a persistent problem and is a serious concern to many states.

Leon Gordenker in the second chapter “Review of the International Rules and issues in the treatment of refugees” further extends the arguments of James to expand on the problems of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Along with presenting a critic of the Convention, he examines different institutional safeguards formulated for the refugees. The most interesting part of Gordenker’s essay is his analysis of the political maneuvers in rendering the status of ‘refugee’ to any persons. According to the international definition of a refugee the ‘fear’ of persecution must be well-founded to justify his migration and provide him ‘asylum’ for being a refugee (pg-71). Gordenker rightly questions that the problem is who examines this extent of fear? He also like James argues in favour of an “assertive intervention”, often at the expense of sovereignty of States but also highlights the risks of conflicts that can arise out of it.

Abby Stoddard in “Every One’s and No One’s: IDPs, Refugees, and the Politics of Aiding the displaced” clearly calls for a new paradigm. She argues that there is a need to revise and reevaluate the performance of the existing International organizations in providing support to the victims following a forced migration. Her essay reflects concern over the crisis of the IDPs and that they should also be treated at par with the refugees. The Donor States, especially USA, the largest donor state should consolidate a clear and comprehensive policy for the IDPs. “Possibly the most striking feature of the international efforts on IDPs, is that the donors have largely been left out of the equation” (pg-97) and this needs to be revised. Claudena M. Skran also opines a need for a new legal infrastructure that would ensure a higher involvement in the protection of refugees and the host countries from terrorism in her chapter “Paradigm Shift In International Refugee Assistance”. She explains that the ‘neutrality’ that the international organizations have practiced so far mainly in respect to the IDPs is fallacious and more active intervention is the call of the day. The common thread that runs through all the essays in the first half is stress on ‘humanitarian intervention’. This is also dangerous by implication especially when it is equated with military intervention.

The second half of the book deals with various case studies. Four case studies have been documented - Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and the Middle East (Palestinian refugees). Each case study starts by sketching a brief history of the country which is the moot cause of the subsequent turmoil forceful eviction of a large number of people. Like as in the case of Afghanistan, Arnie Strand and Petter Bauck narrate the transition of the Country from one political power to the other which has led to the emergence of Mujahideens (pg 145). The chapter connects the present day refugee challenge in Afghanistan to the history of the Afghan society. A similar kind of narration can be traced in chapters 8, 9 and 10 which deal with the crises of the Palestinian refugees. Their situation is also different from other refuges as they are denied the much contested “the right to return”. The essays reflect the trauma that the Palestinians are still going through following their mass eviction in 1948 and 1967. Part three of the book suggests the possibilities for the future, the role of the ‘civil society’ which has gained momentum from the 1980s and future challenges for the International Organizations.

The book has a unique style of narration. The flow of words is lucid and to the point. Headings and subheadings make the reading even more user friendly. The book has covered a lot of challenging issues and despite its bias towards military interventions; it is able to provide solutions to a lot of problems associated with Forced Migration. Its particular concern towards the IDPs and politics that can hamper the rehabilitation process also makes it a very useful reading.