The buzzing metropolis of Delhi represents great diversity and stark contrasts. It is a place where the rich and poor, traditional and modern, outsiders and insiders, co-exist in harmony and cacophony. Delhi has historically been a city of migrants who arrived from other parts of India as well as neighbouring countries, in search of a better life. Amongst this population, there is a small group of refugees: they have escaped war and persecution in their home countries to seek safety in India but unlike migrants, who come to Delhi voluntarily, refugees are forced to flee and they remain unable to return home for as long as insecurity prevails in their countries.
In Delhi, we encounter refugees every day, often without recognizing them and understanding their experiences. We may run into refugees while devouring a plate of momos at a Tibetan eatery in Majnu-ka-Tila or sampling some fine bread at an Afghan bakery in Lajpat Nagar. Sometimes, we may be confused by the presence of African refugees in the cluttered neighbourhood of Khirki Village. At other times, we may not be able to identify Chin refugees from Myanmar in the dusty by lanes of Vikaspuri, often mistaking them as hailing from Northeast India. Many of us are unaware of the presence of thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Afghanistan in Tilak Nagar and Faridabad or Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who live in jhuggis in Madanpur Khadar and toil away as daily wage labourers and rag pickers.
Since time immemorial, from the Cochin Jews to the Parsis, from the trauma of partition and the millions who took flight from East Pakistan all the way to current day refugees from countries embroiled in civil strife, India has been a generous host to those in need of protection. Today, there are some 110,000 Tibetans and 60,000 Sri Lankan Tamils recognized by the Government of India, while another 30,000 refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia or Iraq are registered with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
In the public mind, refugees are often considered a security threat simply because they are associated with the conflicts they ran away from; never mind that refugees themselves dearly value the freedom and safety they enjoy in India, having escaped violence and persecution back home. And yes, they are fully aware that their status as refugees does not put them above the law.
There is, however, one law that entangles many refugees from the moment they set foot on Indian soil, the Foreigners Act 1946 which imposes sanctions for illegal entry and stay, including deportation and detention. Refugees who run away in fear with nothing but their shirts on their back have neither passport nor visa to show, and now face an impossible choice between being open about their presence in India and risking arrest for entering the country illegally, and making a clandestine and equally illegal entry, in order to avoid arrest and detention. Should they not be given an opportunity to present their case, and be granted or denied entry according to the reasons they put forward for having come to India? Preserving the universal right to seek asylum is not at variance with national security concerns: a formal procedure to determine who should be protected as a refugee would actually help reduce illegal movements.
Tomorrow's World Refugee Day. As many countries continue to witness conflict and forced displacement, we ask you to spare a thought to the plight of refugees, even if there is no Afghan bakery in your immediate neighbourhood.
(Dominik Bartsch, Chief of Mission, United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees India.)