Not just Rohingya, India must emerge as global thought leader on refugees

India should learn from Europe, and emerge as a moral force on the global refugee crisis.

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Updated: Oct 09, 2018, 12:56 PM IST

There was a time, not so long ago, when a much less economically empowered India was talked about as a candidate for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. The status of India being a "regional superpower" grew steadily to that of an "aspiring global power". What's more, apart from being the world's fastest-growing major economy, India is already a member of the G-20 group of the world's elite economies.

So, do you expect a country like India to deport and expel a mere seven Rohingya refugees from Myanmar back to where they came from? I should think not. Especially when other Rohingya in India fear a threat to their lives.

Apart from seven being an insignificant number in a nation of 125 crore people that already has an estimated 40,000 Rohingya, it is important for India to see itself as large-hearted nation, though a no-nonsense one. I am beginning to wonder if we have a method in all this. We should, if we still have any aspiration left for the UN Security Council seat in mind.

Let us take a look around. When Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan in 1979, a huge bunch of those affected by communist forces and later by the Taliban's Islamist rule found their safe haven in India. A visit to Lajpat Nagar, in the heart of Delhi, would find many Afghan Muslims who have come to India for safety. An estimated 30,000 Afghan families live in India as refugees or their offspring. Some estimates put the overall number at 60,000. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees in India puts it at only 13,000, probably because it only lists the official "people of concern" who are listed at more than 200,000 -- about half of them Tibetans.

Over the decades, Tibetans, Afghans, Iranians, Somalia, Sri Lankans, Myanmarese and Bangladeshis have waded into India as political refugees of various kinds and compulsions. It is time to ask what has changed and what has not -- and what can be done. India has generally followed the principle of "non-refoulement' -- refusing to send refugees back to a place where they face a threat to their lives. But India is now turning against its own past as the Rohingya create a new diplomatic conundrum. 

Though a narrative is being built to give the Rohingya refugees a colour similar to illegal immigrants in Assam, or another that sees them as a security threat in view of some Islamist connections, the fact is that there is a Buddhist majority in Myanmar which, supported by the Army, is giving hell to the Rohingya in the Rakhine province. I saw recently a documentary series on BBC World Service television by Simon Reeves that brought some chilling aspects of this crisis into focus. Across the Rakhine border, Bangladesh now has the world's largest refugee camp, that houses one million people! 

India is understandably walking a wedge because, apart from the socio-economic fallouts of taking on a refugee burden, there are geopolitical concerns that China may get close to Myanmar's generals if India acts tough on Yangon. India signed an agreement last year to help development in the Rakhine state and pledged $25 million in aid. It is also a partner of the UN Security Council along with other neighbours. But the theme here is of a "safe, speedy and sustainable return of displaced persons."

The Ministry of External Affairs says the seven Rohingya currently in the news are willing to go back, but if that was truly so, why would there be such a fuss? Is New Delhi trying to impress the generals in Yangon?

What should India do? I would suggest India should engage more with the European Union that has its own refugee crisis to handle. Refugees from Africa, Syria and parts of troubled West Asia have crossed into Europe even as it struggles with the adverse fallouts of liberal multiculturalism in a right-wing backlash. Nearly 1.5 million migrants have come into Europe over the past four years or so

China and US are in the middle of a trade war that is worsening historical frictions over human rights as well as a rivalry to dominate the world. Under President Donald Trump, Washington is more concerned about building walls to stop migrants -- be they from Mexico to the US or across the Sahara! 

India and Europe have been having a wide-ranging dialogue that includes a three-year project on migration and mobility that focuses mainly on Indian migration to Europe. But there is a case to expand this into a global role in which India can engage in a wide-ranging dialogue as a thought leader and traditional humanitarian supporter of political refugees. That would be a truly strategic partnership that can help India raise its voice in the UN and hopefully become a permanent member of the Security Council.

Europe needs India as a key trading partner and also as a rising technology powerhouse rich in talent. Both have shared concerns over global security. India can be a Western ally without being seen too much in the company of an unpredictable Trump administration. (Trump recently called India the "Tariff King". Seriously!) 

India has to balance its interests not just between Beijing and Yangon but also between various global groupings. The best course for India is to seek funds from Europe to help refugees, engage as a thought leader on migrant/refugee issues and seek creative new ways to buttress its image as a positive global power built over the decades as a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement and a respected figure in the UN General Assembly. India should not squander away decades of painstakingly built diplomatic advantage.

(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)

 

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