India as a home for refugees worldwide
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) held a public lecture by Shashi Tharoor, former UN diplomat and MP, on the occasion of ‘World Refugee Day’ at the India International Centre.
UNHCR's Chief of Mission in India, Montserrat Feixas Vihe chaired the evening. The theme for this year’s Refugee Day was ‘Restoring Hope’ and the subject of the lecture was ‘Preserving Asylum in India: Achievements and Challenges’.
In the 45 minute lecture, Tharoor outlined how India has been one of the best places for refugees from around the world, how it tends to them and what are the issues the country still faces. The lecture was followed by questions from the audience.
Shashi Tharoor, in his brilliant manner and eloquent speech, laid down many aspects of the asylum conditions in India. India has, since time immemorial, been an extremely welcoming home to refugees from all over the world. He talked about the Jews, Parsis, Christians, Zoroastrians and of course, the Muslims who had been flocking to India because of ‘a well founded fear of persecution.’
The best example that India can offer is that of Partition in 1947 when India was home to around 15 million people from across the borders on both sides.
However, India refused to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol inspite of being in practice of providing asylum for over 60 years. This, according to Tharoor, is a shining example of the “guff between legal position and reality.” In fact, in the discussions after the lecture, India being a non-signatory country of the Convention and Protocol was raised as major issue.
It is important to understand that when refugees come, they don’t just have a bag of belongings but also their hopes, aspirations, skills and dreams. India not only offers asylum to the displaced people, they’re given equal rights and those who obtain Indian passports also obtain the right to vote in addition to other rights. They can establish themselves here and be productive until they return but they will not be deported. Their return is subject to their wish.
There are, however, certain challenges that India has to face. While the refugees have work permit in the informal sector, it must be understood that this sector is very competitive and difficult, with people from all over the country also participating. In the Capital alone, apart from the 22,000 refugees, there will be people from smaller towns in the rat race. Poverty stricken refugees must be given work permits in all sectors, according to Tharoor. Another issue is the suspicion with which they are treated. What the refugees don’t realise is that in their new home, there could be equal distress. There is stereotyping and conservative mindset. In addition to poverty, they face discrimination as well. Indians need to be sensitised.
Tharoor says that India should move on from this modest position of not signing the Protocol or Convention. “Six decades of practice have the force of a customary law,” he said. There is also the need for a refugee status determination and we should be afraid of economic migrants as well. Since India offers so much comfort, other countries might create more refugees but there’s nothing much that can be done about it. India already did a military intervention in 1971 in East Pakistan. But once people flee, they flee, and what better than a welcoming nation like India?