Myanmar: India cannot turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis within its own borders
According to reports, refugee camps set up in Mizoram are in a dire condition. Drinking water, winter blankets, and healthcare for children, pregnant women, and injured civilians are all in limited supply. With little assistance from the Union government, the refugees are forced to rely on civil society organisations that have established makeshift facilities
Today marks the first anniversary of the coup d’etat in Myanmar. The military junta has wreaked devastation on the country since it forcibly wrested power last year, resulting in a human rights crisis that forced thousands of innocent civilians to seek asylum. More than 19,000 people sought refuge and protection in India’s northeastern border states, with Mizoram accounting for the majority of these.
According to reports, refugee camps set up in Mizoram are in a dire condition. Drinking water, winter blankets, and health care for children, pregnant women, and injured civilians are all in limited supply. With little assistance from the Union government, the refugees are forced to rely on civil society organisations that have established makeshift facilities. Individuals, churches, civil society organisations, and to an extent, the state government of Mizoram, provide assistance and financial donations to help run these camps. Due to the minimal support, the situation in these camps remains distressing, with ongoing challenges such as access to education for the children and adequate shelter for the refugees. Without enough assistance, these people face a heartbreaking, and potentially fatal, decision of returning to Myanmar. These efforts have now reached a tipping point, as the state government has said that it lacks the financial resources to address the situation on its own even as the people of Mizoram demonstrate remarkable spirit by welcoming these refugees into their community.
The Union government has asked, in its orders to state governments in the region, to identify and check “illegal influx” and if needed, deport them. This is appalling, and authorities must recognise that these refugees are not illegal migrants, but rather civilians leaving their homeland due to real and grave threats to their lives. The situation in Myanmar today is critical, with human rights organisations alleging that the military junta is responsible for actions that constitute crimes against humanity – prohibited under international law. The United Nations has noted that the people of Myanmar will face an “unprecedented” crisis in 2022. Similar concerns were shared by the UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, who stated that the “international community must intensify pressure on the military to stop its campaign of violence on the people of Myanmar and to promptly restore civilian rule”. By ignoring this humanitarian crisis, India’s actions stand contrary to international humanitarian law to support refugees.
The Union government has asserted that because it is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, it is unable to confer refugee status to the people fleeing Myanmar. But irrespective of whether a country is a signatory to these statutes, the principle of non-refoulement – which dictates that no one should be forced to go back to a country where they would face torture or harm – is binding.
A judgment from the high court of Manipur captures the essence of this principle. While hearing a case involving refugees who fled Myanmar and sought shelter in India, the high court in May 2021 held that though India is not a signatory to the refugee convention, it is under an obligation to respect the right of non-refoulement. The court reached this conclusion because of India’s obligations under other international conventions, and due to protections accorded to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The court then ordered authorities to provide a safe passage for the refugees to approach the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The humanitarian crisis within our borders provides a chance for lawmakers to uphold ideals contained in both our Constitution and international human rights instruments. It serves as a reminder that India lacks a refugee law, and that it is high time Indian lawmakers incorporate these principles into a comprehensive refugee legislation. To prevent the disastrous effects on these people from worsening, the Union government needs to take immediate steps to support humanitarian efforts. In addition, it must promptly revoke orders requiring authorities to locate and deport “illegal influx”, and ensure safe passage for refugees to approach the UNHCR. These are necessary steps for Indian lawmakers to consider, and it is imperative to act before it is too late.
Jade Lyngdoh is a constitutional law honours candidate, National Law University, Jodhpur.
The views expressed are personal