Priyanca Mathur Velath
[CSLG/J.N.U, New Delhi]
A two-day workshop was organised by The Other Media in Delhi on March 30 – 31, 2011 titled ‘Protection of Refugees and Stateless persons in India and her Neighbours’. Ravi Hemadri (TOM) began by remembering how this workshop emerged out of an idea that had come up during an earlier workshop organised by TOM, SAFHR and CRG. The idea was to take up a study on the status of all refugee and stateless communities in India in light of the absence of refugee law.
The objective of the workshop was to bring together representatives of refugee communities, organizations, NGOs, scholars, researchers, other concerned institutions and individuals committed to refugee protection in India, as well as in South Asia, towards examining the current status of the state of refugees and the protection of their rights. The two-day conference focussed on specific issues concerning the Refugee Convention, 1951, Convention Relating to the status of Stateless Persons, 1954, and the 1961 Convention for Reducing Statelessness.
The workshop was a great opportunity of building networks, for refugee communities, both amongst themselves and also between them and the NGO and academic community; at the national and South Asian level and to promote collective action and involvement in removing impediments in protecting the rights of stateless persons and refugees. Since refugees and stateless persons are essentially a regional phenomenon, it was urged that the national governments work out a Regional Framework for solving the problem. However, a proactive role is expected from the Indian state in coming out with a domestic law or the protection of refugees and resolving the outstanding issue of stateless persons.
On the first day the inaugural lecture was delivered by Prof. Partha Ghosh of SIS, J.N.U. titled “Thinking Beyond Security – Migrants and Stateless in South Asia” where he identified various causal categories behind migratory flows. The Chief of Mission, UNHCR, New Delhi Office, Montserrat Fixes Vihe, while chairing the first session appreciated that it was not often that she had the opportunity to be amongst so many people working with refugees and committed towards their cause. It was acknowledged that this workshop would bring together people from diverse backgrounds and different perspectives that can really contribute to enriching our thoughts.
The second session chaired by E. Deenadayalan (TOM), comprised of voices from the refugee community where representatives from the Chin Refugee Committee, Chin Human Rights Organisation (CHRO), Kachin Refugee Committee, Arakan Students Youth Congress, Zomi Refugee Group, Afghani Refugee community, Seemant Lok Sangathan (Pakistan Visthapit Sangha), Somali refugees, Sri Lankan refugees (Jesuit Refugee Service, Chennai) and the Iranian Refugees expressed their concerns regarding their present protection status and living conditions in India. More than ten representatives of refugee/stateless communities expressed their concerns regarding the issues of legal protection and survival, lack of right to work, adequate housing, health care and education, particularly in the urban context. Refugees from Pakistan living in the western state of Rajasthan lamented the climate of suspicion existing in the process of their recognition. Activists working with Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu expressed the need to end the climate of heightened securitization that prevailed during the months of war. Urban refugee communities living in Delhi like those from Myanmar, Afghanistan and Somalia worry about the threats to their lives and safety from violent attacks and deplored the inability of the local police to provide them adequate protection.
Attempts to ‘Overcome the limitations of conventions and protocols and protecting refugee rights way beyond the absence of law or way beyond law’ were sought to be addressed in the next session. Dr. Sudeep Basu (GDIR, Ahmedabad) pointed out that finding a way beyond the absence of law was quite a difficult task as in India while one hand law has always been absent, on the other at best one can say that refugee policy has been present. One needs to thus enquire within this framework how refugees have been able to deal with their existence and lives in the absence of the law. He brought into the discussion some of the work he had done with Tibetan refugees. post 9/11, particularly with the SAARC Convention, there has emerged a notion that there should be a refugee policy for us. There has arisen the need also to have a citizenship law that caters to the needs of Indian state along with the need to ‘securitise’ our borders. This increases the danger of clubbing together migrants of all categories. One thus has to understand and revisit the durable solutions and our intuitive self confidence of thinking that we can do with local integration. It must be realised that for years now India has been host to so many communities, her borders have been very fluid and so local integration as a viable solution is not a easy task. Mr. Ravi Nair (SAHRDC, New Delhi) reiterated that it was clearly evident that the Government of India especially the security establishment, which principally has the last word on migration policy, could do much more then what we give them credit for. They look only at it through the security prism rather than the humanitarian prism and there was little awareness in both government and civil society about the need for a broader policy framework.
Then while discussing ‘Population Movements To and Fro India and Her Neighbours’ it was asked if a ‘South Asian Regional Framework the Answer?’. In this session, the chair, Prof. V.G. Hegde (J.N.U.) spoke of how within this move from specific national legal issues to a more broader South Asian legal framework, if India is located in this context, it must be seen through the lens of the Indian nationality laws, especially in view of the kinds of amendments that have come through. The same have in fact all generally reflected on the cross border population movements because India has borders with all the major south Asian countries. So in that context the nationality laws of other south Asian countries also will have equal impact. There are serious implications resulting in creation of persons of statelessness. Dr Gopal Sivakoti (INHURED, Nepal) humbly stated that being a person from the neighbouring country of Nepal he had a lot to learn from the Indian experience. It’s important to see and assess how the Indian Government has functioned in the field of human rights democracy, in dealing with migration, refugees, and IDPs. He said that as a source country of migration Nepal has learned a lot from India and that it needed to be deliberated if a regional framework could frame a base mark to protect displaced persons in this region.
Next, Hindu Singh Soda (Seemant Lok Sangathan/Pakistan Visthapit Sangha) highlighted the plight of the group of refugees that he worked with i.e., those coming from Pakistan. He explained how the different dimensions of the policies of the Indian government in treating refugee groups can be better understood through the conditions of this group. Anasua Basu Roychowdhury (Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, Kolkata) elaborated on the possibility of formation of regional framework through the lens of Statelessness, it’s meaning and it’s difference from refugee according to international law, illustrating it through her field experience in Arunachal Pradesh.
The participants, that included Dr. Achan Mungleng, highlighted that the plight of refugees in the North East India deserve more attention than they usually get and that the lack of political will of the Indian state must not be forgotten. Participants expressed concern that in such a scenario what would be the role of UNHCR, of refugee committees and of refugee right activities. Unfortunately, not much co ordination is seen when refugees urgently need legal or medical help. Activists usually get so lost that there is no coordination between different NGOs and refugee organizations and no desire to come together and share. Different refugee communities also do not know what is happening with each other. Here the participants expressed their concern at the increasing problems of refugees and stateless persons in the South Asian region and the lack of a legal mechanism for their protection. The participants discussed policy responses to population movements, current position of the refugees and stateless persons and the legal hurdles in the way of their recognition. They resolved to organise themselves into a ‘Refugee & Stateless Persons Rights Network of India’ for better sharing of experiences and to campaign jointly for a better deal.
What has emerged from this workshop is that there are larger issues of state responsibility in ensuring democracy, rule of law, minority protection – both at the national and regional level. Noting that many of the refugee situations are human rights crisis situations, the participants have implored that measures should be taken where all the states ensure better protection of human rights standards and human rights defenders.