Refugee problems in South Asia: Status & challenges
THE meaning and theme of the word ‘refugee’ has been derived from its similar words like displaced persons (DP), or forced migrant but later it came to denote a person who is receiving legally defined protection and are recognized as such by their countries of residence or international organisations, but in general a refugee is a person who has crossed national boundaries and who cannot or is unwilling to return home due to well-founded fear of persecution.
In modern history first, it was defined by the League of Nations, formed after the First World War but found a broad meaning and context following the World War-II when a large number of people began to flee from Eastern Europe, the word found a clear definition and status in the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention.
Although, today it’s a global problem but the region South Asia too is home of over 2.5 million refugees, roughly numbering 75,927 in Afghanistan, 932,209 in Bangladesh, 197,122 in India, 21,467 in Nepal, 1,393,132 in Pakistan and 820 in Sri Lanka.
The refugee all over the world mostly face short as well as long term problems and while short-term needs include food, cloth, shelter, residence, medicine and other daily needs, the aim of long-term scheme is focused on making them more self-reliant with improved legal status, economic environment, social services and job opportunities.
In addition, the regional imbalances, such as, conflicts in Myanmar and some other neighbouring countries have contributed to the number of displaced persons.
The ethnic and racial conflicts in Afghanistan is also no less responsible for increasing the population of refugee in the region which poses an unprecedented challenge to the development of the region in all sectors.
Refugees in South Asia: At large all the four categories — refugees, stateless individuals, displaced persons and mixed migrants are found in South Asia in the form of Afghans, Sri Lankan Tamils, Rohingyas, Chin, Hajong, Chakma and Tibetans who are living in camps or dispersed throughout host countries and in their own countries.
Almost all countries of the region, for example, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal receive as well as produce refugees and some of them are living in host countries for three to six decades and are still spreading due to conflicts, riots, discrimination, religious torture.
Most of the refugees who live in South Asian countries are basically from this region, however, a small number of them are from African and Middle Eastern countries.
The problem of refugees or stateless persons are continuing in the region mainly because none of the South Asian states are a signatory of 1954/1961 Convention relating to the status of stateless persons which designate to ensure that stateless persons enjoy certain fundamental human rights and require to establish a framework of a nationality which will reduce the number of stateless persons over the years as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have done recently.
However, in comparison to other countries, India perhaps due to larger size and an accommodative federal structure have provided more space to refugees coming from small neighbouring countries followings its Independence in 1947.
It is mainly a refugee receiving country which in the past, welcomed the Tibetans, Sri Lankan Tamils, Afghan Sikhs, Pakistani Hindus and Chakmas from Bangladesh along with small number of such people from Afghanistan, Myanmar, African and Middle Eastern countries as refugees.
International conventions and policy: One of the reasons why the South Asian countries, especially, India did not sign the documents of Conventions issued in 1951 and 1967 was that they all were focused on refugees of Cold War fleeing from Communist countries to western democratic countries and as such concentrated on only civil and political rights, not on economic, social and cultural rights and today these states are adopting strict immigration policies that send asylum seekers to detention centres.
In general, the international refugee law consists of International Human Rights Law (IHRL), Customary International Law (CIL), International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) guidelines, along with Conventions of 1951 and Additional Protocol 1967.
In the light of these regulations, principles and guidelines the scholars of South Asia have tried to prepare and implement a universal framework in South Asia but they never succeeded in their mission on account of national security concerns, although, in the era of globalisation and liberalization the time has come to accede to the UN Conventions relating to the Stateless Persons by adopting various methods of reducing the number of refugees in any country, the unique characteristics of South Asian refugees should be kept in view.
In the circumstances, the South Asian countries must legislate national refugee laws to accommodate the influx of such persons in tune with the existing international laws and conventions working in other developed and developing countries.
Challenges ahead: In the present context, the making of an universal focused, balanced, diversified and specific regional refugee protection framework with emphasis on human rights and regional solidarity is a major task for countries of the that who are suffering from this chronic problem in order to provide the refugees travel document, and greater freedom to move inside the country which are basic human rights a state must extend to its recognized refugees.
In the context, India taking a further step has recently passed a Citizenship Amendment Act according to which any asylum/refuge-seeking Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christian coming from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh would no longer be considered illegal migrants, but the same was denied to Muslims from those countries.
The case of India and other South Asian countries is also complex because of conflicts and terror-related activities posing a security challenge for the whole of region.
As a result of this, not to talk of refugee but even a bonafide citizen of one country is viewed by the other in doubt by the public and treated as security risk.
This is why the governments of the region have started thinking in terms of National Register of Citizens (NRC), to meet the challenges of illegal immigrants residing within the country.
— The writer is Professor and Head, Department of Political Science, B N Mandal University, Madhepura, Bihar, India.