‘Refugees subjected to discrimination in India’
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees also feels that India needs a comprehensive legislation to govern refugees.
New Delhi: When young Ziaur Rehman entered India to escape persecution in Myanmar he thought he could finally live his dream of a better future, little knowing his struggles were far from over as he would be scorned as a pariah, a thief and a terrorist in his host country.
Activists and experts claim 30-year-old Rehman is just one among thousands of the over two lakh refugees in India who are subjected to discrimination and arbitrary detention as a result of the lack of a comprehensive legal framework to govern asylum seekers in the country.
The World Refugee Day is observed this Wednesday.
As for Rehman, who heads the group of 250 Rohingya muslims who have been camping in south Delhi`s Okhla since April 9 to lobby for refugee status, his struggle to adapt to a new country has just begun. "We are used to insults.
"People associate our beards to terrorists, our physical features make us stand out, our clothes give away our poverty and the fact that we are asylum seekers make people look at us like we are stateless beggars.
"But we prefer this to the persecution our community suffered for decades in the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. I know the road ahead here is going to be arduous, but we`ve come this far, we won`t give up," says Rehman.
Ravi Nair from the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre, which is working for long-term law for rehabilitation of refugees, said if India wants to be fair to its refugees, then it can`t do with a law that goes back to the 1940s.
"The existing law creates room for bias and executive caprice without due judicial process," claims Nair.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees also feels that India needs a comprehensive legislation to govern refugees but says that India freely welcomes refugees, and that despite not signing the convention on refugee protection, it followed most of the principles within the document.
Nayana Bose, Associate External Relations Officer of UNHCR, said that they assess the claims of all asylum seekers using the same criteria and recognise as refugees those who fall within the definition as given in the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
When pointed that many asylum seekers have claimed that their applications for refugee status were rejected arbitrarily, Bose said, "It is not a single individual who makes the final decision.
"The legal officer who interviews the asylum seeker will make his or assessment of the claim, and this is always looked at by another legal officer, as well. If the applicant is rejected the first time, the asylum seeker can always appeal the decision," she said.
To a question on whether UNHCR keeps a tab on asylum seekers whose applications are rejected, Bose replied in the negative. "When an asylum seeker`s appeal is rejected, he or she is no longer of concern to us.
"They either go back to their respective countries or continue living here illegally," she said, adding that this was where the agency felt that India needed a comprehensive legislation to govern refugees.
Bose was, however, quick to emphasise that India freely welcomes refugees, and that despite not signing the convention on refugee protection, the country followed most of the principles contained within the document.
"It is important that the government enact a domestic refugee legislation. By implementing it, India can provide all of the rights to refugees as mentioned under the UN Convention on refugees even without being its signatory," says Nair.
According to activists, the lacunae in the system are also impeding the work done by the UNHCR in providing legal aid to refugees.
India`s refugee population is divided into two major categories: those who enter India as part of a mass migration and individual asylum seekers.
The former group makes up the majority of the refugee community and is composed mostly of Tibetans and Sri Lankans, while India deputises the UNHCR to determine the status of the remaining 22,000 individual asylum seekers.
"We receive so many complaints every week. Most asylum seekers, whose applications for refugee status have been rejected, continue to live in the country as illegal migrants.
"They find it difficult to find work and they are often discriminated because of their racial appearance and their lack of knowledge of the language," said 25-year-old Bonai, a political science student who heads the Chin Refugee Committee.