Love thy refugees

Love thy refugees

The Z Factor

Mohamed Zeeshan

This August, India got the chance to preside over the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the eleventh time. The Modi government was clear that it wanted to use this as an opportunity to establish its right to a permanent seat at the high table.

The moment itself was mundane: Every member of the UNSC gets to be president – in alphabetical order. But unfortunately, India spent more time on celebrating this mundane moment than it did on enhancing its credentials. Thousands of miles from New York, the Taliban were rampaging, the Kabul airport was in chaos, and thousands of Afghans were going to great lengths in an effort to flee (some even clung onto the wheels of departing aircraft and fell to their deaths).

Yet, as Afghanistan was in the grip of this humanitarian nightmare, New Delhi unleashed a series of unforced errors.

First, the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson said that India’s focus is on helping Hindus and Sikhs. When outraged commentators pointed out that there are less than 1,400 Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan, and far more people than that number were at risk, New Delhi rolled out an emergency visa and invited all Afghans to apply. But for strange reasons, that visa scheme was later scrapped, approved visas were invalidated, and a new e-visa scheme was launched, ostensibly for the same purpose.

Not surprisingly, the chaos caused untold misery, especially for those who had already got the original visa. A friend who had been working in Kabul said, “It doesn’t seem like India wants to help.”

Meanwhile, India deported an Afghan MP who had been in New Delhi for medical treatment, and reports said that “very few” e-visa applications were being approved. A former diplomat-turned-minister used the crisis to say that this is “precisely why it was necessary to enact the Citizenship Amendment Act,” even though that law, as it stands, will not help anybody who comes to India after 2014.

India’s disreputable approach has already ruined its hard-earned goodwill among the Afghan people. But the bigger problem is that India has no refugee law. The government of the day is able to take irrational and ad hoc decisions because there is no law laying out who is a ‘refugee’ and what rights they will enjoy in India once they are conferred that status – including the right to work and right against repatriation.

This is not a Hindu-Muslim issue. India has hosted Tibetan refugees for over 60 years. Yet, due to the ambiguity of their status, Tibetans struggle to find employment, cannot own land, and are unable to travel.

A refugee law is also an economic development plan. As countless studies have proved, many refugees fleeing warzones are capable of contributing to the host economy – including as skilled professionals. This is especially true for Afghanistan, where countless well-educated women are currently burning their degrees because the Taliban are hunting them down.

But for days, Hindu nationalist trolls have been demonising refugees on social media, based on vicious misinformation. One of their key refrains is that “we already have too many people” – as if the Indian population is a huge burden on an otherwise efficient State apparatus, and the addition of a negligible percentage would somehow spark off Armageddon.

If India wants to be a Vishwaguru, it will have to start behaving like one. Selling yoga to the world is not sufficient; India must also stand up for people in distress around the world. The case for a refugee law is not just moral, it is also economic and strategic. As Afghanistan burns, India has no excuse to not enact one.

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