Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Refugee Protection in South Asia

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Refugee Protection in South Asia

Article excerpt

Historically South Asia has witnessed substantial intra-regional movement and dislocation of regional groups fleeing ethnic or religious persecution and political instability. India's multiethnic, multilingual and relatively stable society has often made it an attractive destination for these groups. This phenomenon continues today. Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, Jumma peoples from Bangladesh and Chin and other tribal refugees from Burma, Afghanistan, Iran and even Sudan today comprise the bulk of India's refugee population.

The Indian government has been inconsistent in dealing with refugees, changing its official policy on the number and origin of refugees to be allowed. Despite the fact that India has a large refugee population, international scrutiny is seldom given to the conditions in which these refugees live. Often, these conditions are extremely harsh, falling short of international standards and forcing refugee communities to struggle to fill even their most basic human needs.

The Indian government compounds the problem by failing to provide access to local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that wish to address refugee needs. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been particularly disappointing in this regard, tending to underinterpret its mandate for refugee protection in South Asia.

Little if any information is available to the international community or to the Indian people about the plight of these refugees once they reach India. This article will describe the condition of South Asian refugees in India and draw the Indian government's attention to the need for legislation to protect refugees and asylum seekers. Moreover, this article will examine the role of international organizations such as the UNHCR and domestic NGOs such as the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC) in New Delhi.

Who is a Refugee?

According to UNHCR mandate and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the term refugee applies to those people who: (a) have fled their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group; and (b) cannot or do not want to return due to fear. The 1967 Protocol to the Convention altered this definition only insofar as it removed the time limit of the former, which only covered refugees who had been displaced as a result of events occurring before 1951.

Applicable Laws

The refugee problem was acknowledged as having international dimensions and requiring global cooperation from 1921 to 1922 in the aftermath of the First World War, the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Russian revolution. However, real movement to protect refugees began only with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaimed basic rights for all human beings irrespective of their nationality or citizenship. This declaration was an important first step for refugees, who are particularly vulnerable in foreign countries. It is therefore incumbent upon the international community to protect their rights both in countries of origin and asylum.

A myriad of specialized and regional human rights instruments have sprung from the foundation of the International Bill of Human Rights. The inalienable rights enshrined in the covenants such as Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), are also applicable to the refugees. India has undertaken an obligation by ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to accord treatment to all non-citizens that is equal to that of its citizens. India is presently a member of the Executive Committee of the UNHCR, which entails the responsibility to abide by international standards on the treatment of refugees. …

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