If you happen to be travelling tomorrow, chances are that at airports and other public places across the world, the impossibly gorgeous Angelina Jolie will be on screens telling people not to forget the plight of millions of refugees on World Refugee Day. It is not likely to make much of a splash in India as successive governments have been oddly reluctant to admit that we have always been, and continue to be, a refugee-prone country. From Partition onwards, India has had to handle refugees, though it has so far refused to sign the international convention on refugees or acknowledge the efforts of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Yet, work on a draft bill has been on since 1999 although nothing has come of it yet. A high-level group from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal got together under Justice PN Bhagwati to formulate a model bill, which was later found to lack the institutional mechanisms required to deal with refugees. It was revised to remove its anomalies and named the Refugees and Asylum Seekers (Protection) Bill, 2006. As is usual with any progressive legislation, this model bill has done the rounds of several MPs. Though experts from Fali Nariman to Justice Anand have given their inputs and the model bill is legalistically perfect, it is still hanging fire.
Though the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has been in the loop all along, little has been done to push the model bill. This is puzzling since India is hyper-sensitive about its borders and the question of refugees who flow across them. From a security and foreign policy point of view, it makes sense to have a legal framework in which to ascertain whether a refugee is genuine or an imposter. In the age of terrorism, it becomes all the more urgent that the government has a fix on the number and whereabouts of the lakhs of people who enter the country every year.
We have seen how politicised the issue of Bangladeshi migrants has become. There are fears, and rightly so, that some of these migrants could claim refugees status and stay on and that the courts might rule in their favour. But with no effective government machinery, it is difficult to disprove false claims. The model bill that incorporates existing international refugee protection and humanitarian considerations does take into account India’s concerns about terrorism.
Since none of the South Asian countries is part of the convention on refugees, it was hoped that a mechanism could be worked out under the aegis of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc). But as we all know, the regional grouping is hardly effective and appears to be little more than a platform for India and Pakistan to score points over each other. Many may argue that if the model bill is passed, there would have to be a huge bureaucracy set up to make it effective. But thanks to the failure to address the issue, it is perfectly possible for terrorists to enter and vanish into thin air.
The government justification for its inaction is that the legal framework to deal with refugees exists within the Constitution. This is something the NHRC considers inadequate. The model bill is specific in its provisions right from determining who is a bona fide refugee to his or her being able to live in India without discrimination. But with the new government off the blocks, there is still hope that the bill will see the light of day. India is today a world power and proud of its reputation as a country, unlike so many others, that welcomes those hounded out of their own countries. The issue of the Tibetans is a case in point.
The plight of refugees is something no civilised nation can ignore. It is perhaps one of the most traumatic of human experiences to be uprooted from one’s land, kin and culture and relocated to an alien land. It is a situation tailor-made for persecution and discrimination. We just need to look at Africa to see the magnitude of human suffering that displacement has brought about. Or closer home, the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils.
That these are powerless people has often been used by the authorities to ignore them, even to try and forcibly send them back to their countries of origin. We are no strangers to exclusion and discrimination. It is important that we set an example of how a great power does not overlook its responsibility to those seeking its protection.