Refugee Problem in India – Explained, Pointwise


The Refugee Problem in India is again in the limelight after the February 2021 coup in Myanmar. Numerous people are coming to India from Myanmar to save their lives. However, the Indian government is reluctant to allow this influx considering the challenges posed by refugees.

India’s stance towards refugees had remained accommodative in the past. It has welcomed them from diverse countries subject to national interest and resource availability. 

Humanitarian spirit, national security and legal framework can tackle the current refugee problem. 

About the recent Refugee Problem
  • Myanmar witnessed refugee influx after the coup in the country and subsequent military rule. Some democratic groups started protesting against the coup. It resulted in the military crackdown on the dissenters. 
  • So, Many people in Myanmar and the security forces who oppose the coup, start fleeing the country and entering India.
  • Against this backdrop, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) directed Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh to check illegal influx from Myanmar into India.
    1. It has also called for sealing the border with Myanmar so as to curtail the influx.
    2. The ministry clarified that state governments have no powers to grant ‘refugee’ status to any foreigner.
    3. Intelligence inputs suggest 733 Myanmar nationals have made it into Mizoram.
International conventions and forums for Refugees 
United Nations Refugee Convention,1951:
  1. The 1951 Refugee Convention or Geneva Convention is a United Nations multilateral treaty for the protection of refugees.
  2. The convention defines a refugee as a person who fled their homes and countries. Especially due to a well-founded fear of persecution of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
  3. The Convention also mentions people who do not qualify as refugees, such as war criminals.
  4. The Convention builds on Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948. The article recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries.
  5. non-refoulement: The cornerstone of the 1951 Refugee Convention is the principle of non-refoulement. According to this principle, a refugee should not be deported to a country where he or she faces serious threats to his or her life or freedom.
  6. The 1967 protocol of the convention allowed even the non-Europeans to get refugee status. Thereby making the convention more comprehensive.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
  1. It was created in 1950, during the aftermath of the Second World War, to help millions of Europeans who had fled or lost their homes.
  2. It is a global organization for saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future. The organisation covers refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people
Global Refugee Forum (GRF)
  1. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Refugee Agency, and the government of Switzerland together host the GRF. 
  2. It aims to debate and discuss the response of the world’s countries to the global refugee situation.
Refugee Problem in India
  • India does not have a separate statute for refugees. Until now India is dealing with refugees on a case-by-case basis.
  • India is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. 
    • However, India is a signatory to a number of United Nations and World Conventions on Human Rights. Such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It affirms basic rights for all persons – citizens and non-citizens in the same manner.
  • India has been generous to refugees and asylum-seekers. The two largest Refugee Influx in India are including some 62,000 Sri Lankans and some 100,000 Tibetans are directly assisted by the Government of India.
  • In late 2011, the Rohingya started to arrive in India’s Northeast following stepped-up persecution by the Myanmarese armed forces.
  • According to the Home Ministry, there are roughly 14,000 Rohingya refugees in India who are registered with the UNHCR. Apart from that, there are estimates of around 40,000 Rohingya living in India illegally.

Read about the legal Provisions for Refugees in India

Factors behind Refugee Problem in India
Direct causes for Refugee Problem
  • Prevent persecution: Refugees often face a grave threat of persecution in their native countries that induce them to migrate towards safe havens like India.
  • Accommodative approach: Despite being a non-signatory to the 1951 refugee convention, India has welcomed refugees since 1947. This includes Tibetans, Bangladeshis, Afghanis etc.
  • Diversity: The multi-religious, multicultural and multi-ethnic diversity of India creates social bonds with numerous foreign citizens. For instance, it was the Tamilian Bond that induced Sri Lankan Tamils to look towards India for migration during the civil war. Similarly, the kinship between Myanmar people and Manipur people is attracting the Myanmar refugees towards India. 
Indirect causes for Refugee Problem
  • Open Borders: This is not a direct factor but it facilitates movement towards India. Many people from Myanmar were able to enter India due to the open border.
  • A deficiency of Personnel: The government’s order to curb the refugee influx from Myanmar was not implemented effectively. As the Assam Rifles wasn’t able to effectively monitor the border with just three battalions.
  • Favourable Agreements: The majority of refugees from Myanmar are holding their position around the Free Movement Regime. It is a region of 16 km on either side, where there is unrestricted  access as per a pact between the two countries.
  • Unstable Neighbourhood countries: India’s neighbourhood countries are facing one or other problems since their formation. For example, the Civil war was now followed by Human Rights Violation in Sri Lanka. Similarly, the Bangladesh liberation war later followed by military rule, etc.
Arguments in favour of permitting Refugee Influx
  • Humanitarian Rights: India has an implicit obligation under UDHR to protect the human rights of non-citizens as well. Thus, the refugees facing persecution threat should be allowed into India.
  • Prevent Civil War: The armed rebel groups have threatened Myanmar’s military with retaliation if the atrocities do not stop. If India returns back the Myanmarese, then more hatred will be generated that might trigger a civil war in future.
  • Responsible Regional Power: The country aspires to be regional and global power that itself calls for adopting an accommodative stance towards refugees.
  • Champion of Democracy: The world’s largest democracy has a responsibility of protecting the rights of people who put their lives in danger for upholding democracy. This was seen recently in Myanmar.
Arguments against permitting Refugee Influx

Refugee Influx poses many challenges to India’s internal security. This include,

  1. Social consequences of permitting refugees:
    • Refugees might create an identity crisis with the indigenous people. For example, Bangladeshi refugees in Assam and Arunachal threaten to overtake the indigenous population of the region.
    • Difficult to identify and deport them back to their country after a few years. For example, the Rohingya refugees entered through the North-East. But later they spread to all other states.
  2. Economic consequence of permitting refugees:
    • Increased financial responsibility of the state. According to the UNHCR report in 2014, there were more than 200,000 refugees in India. India at present does not have the financial capacity to satisfy all their basic needs.
    • Decreases domestic wage level and replaces the native people. Since illegal immigrants and refugees require food and shelter, they also work at very low wages in their settling areas. 
  3. Political consequence of permitting refugees:
    • Issue of terrorism: These refugees, since not accepted by governments, are vulnerable to join terror outfits for work and revenue.

Suggestions to solve the Refugee Problem

  • Firstly, India should put forward its constructive arguments in the upcoming UNSC meeting related to the Myanmar coup. A proposal to impose global sanctions on Myanmar can be considered here.
  • Further, there is a need to formulate a comprehensive refugee policy that would provide greater clarity in differentiating between a refugee/illegal migrant.
    • A National Immigration Commission can be appointed to frame a National Migration Policy and a National Refugee Policy for India.
  • Thirdly, the government has to strengthen the Foreigners Act 1946 and also sign bilateral agreements with neighbourhood countries regarding deportation.
  • Fourthly, the states must cooperate with the centre on the refugee problem. As law and order is a state list while international relations come under the Union list.
  • Fifthly, the states should follow the MHA guidelines of 2018 to identify illegal immigrants. The MHA recommendations include,
    • Restrictions of Illegal Migrants specific locations as per provisions of law
    • Capturing their biographic and biometric particulars
    • Cancellation of fake Indian documents
    • Initiating legal proceedings including deportation proceedings as per provisions of law

The people demanding refuge are in a vulnerable situation and see a last ray of hope in an inclusive and tolerant country. Considering this, there should be an intake of refugees but not at the cost of the native population. So, It is high time for India to define a clear-cut refugee policy. 

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