India's ambivalent refugee policy and the Rohingya
Brussels, Aug 26: At least 20,000 Rohingya are registered in India with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and an estimated 1,100 of them are living in a camp set up in the capital New Delhi.
On August 17, Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Puri announced that Rohingya refugees would be given apartments in the capital, as well as protection and basic amenities. The decision marked an apparent reversal of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government's hostile stance toward Rohingya refugees.
"India has always welcomed those who have sought refuge," Puri tweeted. "India respects and follows UN Refugee Convention 1951 and provides refuge to all, regardless of their race, religion or creed."
But shortly after Puri's tweet, the Home Ministry, headed by Amit Shah, who had once referred to illegal immigrants as "termites," denied the report.
The ministry said "illegal foreigners" would be kept in a detention center until they are deported to Myanmar. "The (state) government of Delhi has not declared the present location as a detention center…" it said.
Home Ministry officials argue that an influx of refugees places an economic burden on the state and poses security risks.
India's inconsistent refugee stance
Some analysts says India's inconsistent stance on refugees is symptomatic of the ambiguity inherent in the country's refugee policy, which is guided primarily by ad hoc-ism.
"It is evident that the government fell between two stools and finally the strong-line Hindu voices within the government and outside prevailed on the Rohingya issue," Ravi Nair, executive director of South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, told DW.
Nair said the government initially desired to present a "liberal face" before the upcoming executive committee of the UNHCR in mid-October and the meeting of the UN Human Rights Council on India next month — but other pressures surfaced.
"India's hypocritical policy on the treatment of refugees based on their ethnic origin or religious belief is rooted in racial preferences and domestic or geo-political considerations," Suhas Chakma, director of Rights and Risks Analysis Group, a think tank that conducts risk analysis to prevent human rights violations, told DW.
Chakma said India treats Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority as "untouchables" while lending financial support to over 20,000 Chin refugees from Myanmar who fled to the northeastern state of Mizoram following the 2021 military coup.
"The treatment of refugees is determined by political expediency which is obstructive. A symbolic and insignificant gesture recognizing Rohingya Muslims as refugees would undermine the Hindu-supremacist hate speech of BJP leaders," Kavita Krishan of the All India Progressive Women's Association told DW.
India also hosts over 58,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in the states of Tamil Nadu and Odisha, extending assistance such as reservation in education. Some analysts say they have been welcomed because of their Tamil origin as Sri Lanka's armed conflict ended in 2009.
Since the Dalai Lama's flight from Tibet in 1959, some 85,000 Tibetan refugees have also been living in India, residing in 45 settlement camps across 10 states. Qualified professionals among the Tibetan refugee population have been permitted to take jobs in private and non-government sectors since 2014.
"India has been fearful of bringing a refugee law because equality and the rule of law shall have to be established," said Chakma.
Streamlining refugee policy
India is not a signatory to international laws such as the 1951 UN Convention and the 1967 Protocol, which secure the rights of refugees to seek asylum and protect them from being sent back to life-threatening places.
India's Foreigners Act of 1946, meanwhile, allows the government to deport any foreign citizen. Furthermore, the recently enacted Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 excludes Muslims and seeks to provide fast-track citizenship only to Hindu, Christian, Jain, Parsi, Sikh and Buddhist immigrants persecuted in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
The government has admitted in parliament that there is no national law on refugees and only standard operating procedures are issued by the Home Ministry to deal with foreign nationals in India who say they are refugees.
In many cases, the government has provided relief assistance such as a monthly cash dole, subsidized rations, clothing and infrastructural facilities for Pakistani Hindus and Tamils who live in camps in Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Punjab.
"Basic humanity demands giving shelter to people who are running from persecution and violence. If ever the government has taken a positive stand on refugees, it has been only under the international pressure as we see in the Rohingya case," human rights activist Shabnam Hashmi told DW.