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Towards a United India: Need for Unified National Refugee Policy

Updated: Nov 13, 2022

‘People become refugees not by choice, but by circumstances’

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International law defines refugees as persons who have been forced to flee the country of their origin and are unable or unwilling to return there due to the fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, ethnicity, political beliefs, etc. Refugees form a special class of persons different from other migrants or aliens – legal or illegal who voluntarily leave their home country for a host of reasons.

1. India hosts one of the largest populations of refugees in the world

India has a long tradition of hosting refugees as propagated by Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister. The subsequent governments have taken several necessary steps to provide a safe haven for persecuted communities who escaped their home country due to factors such as religious and community prosecution. According to Refugee International estimates, India hosts around 3,30,000 refugees and its refugee population includes as many as 1,43,000 Sri Lankans, 1,10,000 Tibetans, an estimated 52,000 Chin and other minorities from Burma, 15,000 from Bhutan, about 11,400 from Afghanistan, an unspecified but massive number of Hindus from Bangladesh, several Nepalese who fled the Maoist insurgency, and more than 400 from other countries.

2. India is non-signatory to the International Convention of Refugees due to convoluted migration

The basic principle of any international law states that a convention rectified will be binding in nature only for the participating states where they will adhere to this law in good faith, i.e., positive morality. Any violation will lead to heavy sanctions and embargoes that will cripple the economy of the accused country. Despite previous attempts, the Refugee Convention 1951 was the first important convention that legally binds the signatories to recognize and protect people who have fled their country in the fear of persecution and is considered a reference point for refugee rights agreements around the globe. The 1967 Protocol removed the geographic limitations thereby making the convention universally applicable. However, India is one such country that refuses to sign any refugee conventions despite hosting a large number of refugees due to the restriction imposed to modify domestic policy for transnational migration in the subcontinent.

Transnational migration has always been a complicated issue since its independence following partition in 1947. Given the convoluted issues of south Asian countries, India has always faced the issue of differentiating asylum seekers from other migrants who seek to enter Indian territory due to factors other than prosecution. This is further intensified by the porous borders that help illegal immigrants easily enter and falsely seek asylum from persecution in the country.

3. UNHCR fills in for the lack of a central body for refugee policy

Today, the United Nations Human Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the primary international agency under the United Nations that mandates aid and protection programmes towards forcibly displaced populations including refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless communities among others. The absence of clearly defined statutory standards that subjects refugees and asylum seekers to inconsistent and arbitrary government policies have made India more dependent on UNHCR for granting refugee status. On the other hand, there are a lot of discrepancies among agencies in monitoring them due to the lack of a central body.

This paper contours challenges faced by refugees after entering the Indian territory due to a lack of domestic policy. Based on the challenges, the paper further seeks to outline a set of recommendations that can be adopted as a national policy to deal with the refugee crisis in India.

4. Challenges faced by Refugees after they enter the Indian Border

4.1 Lack of experts at the border

Owing to different points of entry to the Indian Subcontinent an asylum seeker may have to encounter different personnel depending on entry points for example if entering through a road in the north or northeast region one would encounter Border Security Force, likewise, immigration or authorized customs officers are present at established airports and seaports. The border lacks the presence of officers/staff with the expertise to deal with refugees leading to the following:

a. Defying the principle of non-refoulment: With no guidelines on interaction with refugees, if an asylum seeker is caught entering the border illegally (without documents), the authorities concerned usually deport them across the border defying the principle of non-refoulment or interrogate and detain them at the border.

b. Delay in decision making: A decision to let an individual cross into the Indian border without proper documentation involves coordination between the Ministry to various concerned departments at the local level, this may lead to delayed decisions with the refugee barely surviving in the detention center all that while.

4.2 Lack of legal framework

India doesn’t have a legal or administrative framework for refugee determination status. The absence of a defined framework leads to:

a. Confusion rendered by the involvement of multiple stakeholders: India has two processes to apply for refugee status depending on their country of origin. UNHCR conducts RDS for asylum seekers from neighboring countries whereas the Ministry of Home Affairs conducts RDS for asylum seekers from non-neighboring countries. The divide has led to confusion amongst the refugees; the lack of ownership by the Indian administration has paved the ground for the failure to integrate refugees. The lack of ownership has ushered in failure to socially integrate refugees into Indian society. A visual of the aforementioned can be seen in the concentration of refugees in settlement camps versus other residential spaces. Refugees may feel safe when residing in resettlement camps but they may face discrimination when they step out.

b. Lengthy process of UNHCR for Refugee Determination Status: To be able to legally stay in India, an individual has to first register with the UNHCR either virtually (they can be reached through a dedicated email id and phone number) or in person by visiting two physical offices of UNHCR or their partner organization. The registration process is followed by the Refugee Determination Process. In a positive situation, RDS is granted to individuals within three months, however, an individual may have to wait for one whole year to inquire about the RDS.

4.3. Socio-economic issues due to the absence of a separate policy

Once accepted as refugees, Indian refugees are given freedom of movement, residence and work without any objection from the administration. However, Indian laws are applicable to govern the refugees in the absence of statute unified policy which is problematic as the needs of refugees differ from that of the citizens. This creates confusion leading to unclear jurisdiction of several authorities with the potential for clashes among authorities.

a. Lack of social integration leading to divide and rule policy adopted by politicians: the issue of designing specific ad hoc policies delays social integration among refugees and Indian citizens. As a result, the social division between Indian citizens and refugees widens. Politicians and political groups use this gap to propagate their personal narrative and retain power in Indian politics.

  • Some groups use this narrative to propagate hatred towards refugees for encroaching the dynamic of Indian society.

  • Some use it to target opposition for their provision of refugee inadequate conditions to gain sympathy votes from citizens.

b. Inaccessible healthcare due to discrepancies of authorities: Several discrepancies prevent refugees from accessing adequate healthcare facilities on time despite the continuous health issues, especially COVID-19.

  • Lack of healthcare infrastructure in settlement vicinity: Today, healthcare infrastructures are inadequate, especially in refugee camps. Hence, an individual may have to travel a distance and spend a huge sum of money to avail of treatment.

  • Limited consideration of UNHCR card due to discretion of authorities: The certificate issued by UNHCR (also referred to as the UN card) has limited consideration depending on the discretion of the authorities. For instance, various government schemes require one to register at their online portal to avail services. The portal however doesn't consider the UN certificate as a document of identification. This pushes the refugees/asylum to access healthcare services.

  • Fear of being discriminated against: Many refugees and asylum seekers avoid visiting healthcare facilities because they are afraid of being reported to higher authorities. The cases of discrimination has worked as negative reinforcement to avail the healthcare facility.

c. Limited employment to the urban informal economy due to low acquisition of education: There has been a disproportionate growth of the economy as economic policies have always been focused more on urban areas of certain states. Given the blooming opportunities especially in the informal sector of these urban areas, most refugees with sub-par skills find it easier to settle in urban centers of certain states despite the harsh working conditions consisting of labor and human rights violation and minimal wages. This, as a result, pushes them deep into poverty.

  • Local authority’s discretion: Refugees and asylum seekers exist in legally gray areas with decision of enrollment left to local authorities. For example, if a government school may admit a child who has been recognised by UNHCR as a refugee, it's well within the rights of another government school to deny the admission on the basis of the children being an illegal resident.

  • Language barrier: In addition to this, hindi or a wide range of vernacular languages are spoken and often used as a medium of conversation or teaching in India. Failure to understand the language may lead to losing interest in studies and dropping out of schools.

  • Inability to access and attain higher Education and skills: Education is a human right and a need of every child. Most of their descendants are deprived from accessing quality education and necessary skills for formal markets. Despite various initiatives by the government to make education universally applicable for all, a few challenges still exist that further gravitate them into poverty.

5. Effective policy that solved the refugee crisis in other countries

Given the intensity, several countries have taken admirable steps in collaboration with UNHCR to provide better assistance to asylum seekers seeking refugee status. Some of the most admirable refugee policies adopted by several countries are given below-

5.1 Quota System - dividing refugee population equitably across Germany

Given the large disproportionate influxes of refugees, the uneven distribution of refugees in certain German states exerted tremendous pressure on certain German states. The government thus adopted the Königstein Quota System as a procedure to divide the refugee influxes equitably across the country. This system scales German states in a combined formula of weighted addition of population (1/3rd of consideration) with tax revenue (2/3rd of consideration). Hence, the country is acclaimed for distributing asylum applicants equitably across its states.

5.2 Private sponsorship - accelerating interactions among refugees and citizens in Canada

Canada is considered a safe haven for refugees whose humanitarian policies are dictated by its long history of positive multicultural policies, outlook and legislation toward immigration through great initiatives such as sponsorship agreement holders to enhance interactions among the demographics.

UNHCR: The Canadian resettlement program uses the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to identify refugees seeking resettlement in the country with the help of sponsors.

Sponsors: These asylum seekers are sponsored by private sponsorship agreement holders such as private individuals, and communities among others in addition to the government programmes to the UNHCR for identification and subsequent resettlement process.

5.3 Well-structured refugee programmes in the United Kingdom and New Zealand

  • The United Kingdom has been well appreciated for the vulnerable refugee resettlement scheme facilitating assistance to the most vulnerable asylum seekers. Once eligible for refugee status through the combined efforts of the government and UNHCR, the biometric residence permits to refugees are issued for the next 5 years as refugees leave. In the meantime, the government extends several essential services such as resettlement costs for the first 12 months of arrival, funding for enhancing English and other skills for better employment, and local authority assistance among others for better integration with English society.

  • The New Zealand Refugee Resettlement Strategy is another well-appreciated refugee policy that aims at the self-sufficiency of refugees. This includes five goals i.e., self-sufficiency to increase working-age refugees, strong participation of refugees in New Zealand life and community, enhancing health and wellbeing of refugees, improving English language skills for better education and providing affordable housing without government assistance. The country also enables community organization and refugee sponsorship for better refugee resettlement.

Given some of the best policies across the world, India can adopt certain policy elements with modification in addition to its own policies to develop a comprehensive national policy and recommendation as mentioned below.

6. Recommendations

Based on the multilayered aspects of the issue, we suggest setting up a dedicated agency/body/institution national level with its representative in various regional offices across entry points. The body can be further divided into three wings namely;

  1. Administrative,

  2. Sponsorships and

  3. Education and awareness.

6.1 Administrative Wing

The administrative wing would be entrusted with the formulation, execution, and monitoring of the following:

  • Comprehensive procedure for Refugee Determination Status.

  • Standard Operating Procedures for its representative across entry points.

  • Creation of a digital database to capture details of refugees (capturing details like educational qualifications, previous work experience, and skill set).

  • Monitoring and allocation of funds across departments.

A collaborative approach of the national body with existing UNHCR and other international/national organizations, civil society organizations, and other private players could help in creating a thriving ecosystem for dealing with issues of refugees. Solving this issue also propagates better access to public services as it creates a unified platform for all refugees to access them without discrimination.

6.2 Sponsorship Wing

Sponsorship could pose itself as an important resolution for social/economic integration of refugees into mainstream society and to solve for the challenges of uneven distribution of refugees across states in the Indian subcontinent. Thereby, we recommend a potential sponsorship wing which would after the following:

  • Segregation of refugees into either government or private recipients depending on their availability by reviewing, processing, and filtering the requests.

  • Private sponsors could include individuals, families, communities, and other organizations as mandated by the administrative wing.

  • Enlisting and keeping a track of viable geographical options (states) available for refugees to live in by taking the population, revenue, and culture of the respective state into consideration for better economic and social integration.

  • Responsible for communication between sponsors and sponsorship holders to better assimilate and reduce discrepancies.

6.3 Education and Awareness wing

Deriving from the significant role played by education to reduce the gap created in Indian society. This wing will use education as a tool to change perceptions of children and society at large. Thereby, through the introduction of refugee topics in schools with better teaching infrastructures this wing shall attempt to open and educate ideas about diversity and inclusion that will ultimately result in better integration by reducing the ‘Us vs them' narrative in the long run. The functions for this department are as follows:

  • Formulate different parameters, criteria and syllabus for the inclusion of refugee issues in the middle schools in collaboration with educational boards through their respective regional offices.

  • Creating awareness amongst the target adult population through different techniques such as door-to-door advocacy, and large community gathering among others.

  • Concentrate on higher education and skill enhancement coupled with free courses on local language for different refugees for upward mobility and involvement in formal sector employment.

7. Conclusion

It is pertinent for the Indian Subcontinent to have a refugee policy in place as it accommodates one of the largest refugee individuals amongst the south Asian countries. A framework consisting of responsibilities for administrative and socio-economic integration along with a collaborative approach of the national body with existing UNHCR, international/national organizations, civil society organizations and other private players could help in creating a thriving ecosystem for dealing with issues of refugees with the potential to pave the path towards a unified India. A unified India which respects all human beings within its geographical border.


Meet the Thought Leaders

Aashi Agarwal is a mentor at GGI and is currently working as a consultant at Kearney. She exhibits a keen interest in the social sector and has gained vivid experiences being a part of Teach for India, Katalyst and BloodConnect Foundation. Aashi pursued her B.Tech from IIT Delhi and was conferred with the prestigious Director’s Gold Medal for her excellent all-rounder performance and leadership skills. Outside of work, you can find her writing poetry Slam, learning French or exploring new places, food, lifestyle and culture.


Meet the Authors

Anjana Kindo is an Impact Fellow at Global Governance Initiative. Currently, she works as an associate at Goodera. The continual interest in social impact comes from an array of experiences gained by working on the implementation side of the POSHAN Abhiyaan and the National Helpline Senior Citizens. Apart from work, her time is spent at hikes or listening/reading about tribal art and culture.

Radhika Jagdale is an impact fellow at Global Governance Initiative, she has been working in the developmental sector for the past 4 years, her work area involves in the urban rural and tribal community development setups. Apart from work, she was a former boxing player, and likes to spend time as a painter and a collector of numismatists.

Seemankar Pratim Deka is an impact fellow at Global Governance Initiative (GGI) who has recently completed his master's in International relations from Madras University, Chennai. Intrigued by the changing dynamics of the international system, he has a keen interest in the dynamic field of global politics. He developed his analytical and communication skills by gaining valuable experience in the field of foreign policy, refugee crisis among others. Known for his joly attitude, his hobbies include dancing, travelling and exploring new culture and food.

If you are interested in applying to GGI's Impact Fellowship program, you can access our application link here.



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