India has about 400,000 refugees, of which 238,222 are recognised, an independent survey has found. About 20,000 refugees including 18,000 from Myanmar, mostly Chins, took shelter in India in 2021. An unaccounted number of Afghan refugees also took shelter in the country this year, it said. 4,557 Afghans were in India on Long Term Visa (LTVs) as of December 2021.
The findings are from the annual report of the Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG), an independent think-tank based in New Delhi.
"There is no accurate data on the number of refugees but India has about 400,000 refugees including 238,222 recognised and documented refugees i.e. Sri Lankan refugees; Tibetan refugees and refugees recognised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); about 31,313 refugees belonging to minority communities from neighbouring countries who have been given LTV on the basis of their claims of religious persecution and want Indian citizenship, and about 123,000 unregistered Chin and Rohingya refugees," Suhas Chakma, Director of the RRAG, said.
In 2021, at least 414 refugees mainly from Myanmar i.e. about 354 Rohingyas and 60 Chins and other ethnic Myanmarese nationals were arrested by the police in various states of India. The highest number of arrests was reported from Jammu and Kashmir with 174, followed by Delhi (95), Assam (55), Manipur (30), Uttar Pradesh and Haryana (19 each), West Bengal (13), Telangana (6) and Tripura (3). Non-Myanmarese refugees like the Tibetans and Sri Lankan Tamils do not face such arrest and detention for illegal entry into India.
Given that no refugee law exists in India, the treatment of refugees is guided by geopolitical interest and vote bank politics.
While India extends full support to the Tibetan refugees and the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees including welfare measures worth Rs 317.40 crore announced by the Tamil Nadu government in August 2021, India targets refugees from other countries, in particular, the Rohingyas. While Chin refugees from Myanmar received a modicum of protection including non-refoulment, at least 1,177 Rohingya immigrants were arrested/detained, or rescued from trafficking by police in different states during 2017 - 2021. These arrests included 386 in West Bengal, 187 in Jammu and Kashmir, 141 in Telangana, 123 in Tripura, 98 Rohingyas in Delhi, 98 in Assam, 53 in Manipur, 35 in Mizoram, 19 each in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, 7 in Karnataka, 8 in Kerala, and 3 in Rajasthan.
"The response of the Supreme Court of India on the Rohingya refugees remained wanting. On 8 April 2021, the Supreme Court in a departure declined to issue direction to the Union of India and Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) administration to release the 168 Rohingya refugees detained at sub-jail in Jammu. It merely directed not to deport any of them to Myanmar without the procedure prescribed for such deportation despite the risks of torture and non-acceptance by Myanmar itself. The question remains as Myanmar does not accept the Rohingyas, will India detain the refugees forever, waiting for deportation with the sanction of the Supreme Court?" Mr Chakma said.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a ravaging impact on refugee communities in India. UNHCR's 'Cash-Based Assistance' has been found to be highly inadequate both in scale and coverage. Nearly 56% of Rohingya refugees living across India lost employment due to the pandemic. As many as six Chin refugees succumbed to Covid-19 infection during the second wave of the pandemic, often without any medical care in government hospitals because they lacked the documentation or money required for private hospitalisation. For vaccination against COVID-19, registration with the CoWin platform requires the use of a government-approved identity card such as an Aadhar card, passport, Permanent Account Number, etc. The refugees, especially the unrecognised and undocumented ones, are not eligible for these documents and further, private healthcare services are inaccessible due to high costs.
The taking over of Afghanistan by the Taliban on 15 August 2021 exposed the inadequacy of India's controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to protect any asylum seeker belonging to minority communities from the war-ravaged nation. The Afghan Sikh and Hindu minorities including lawmakers Anarkali Kaur Honaryar and Narender Singh Khalsa are not eligible for protection under the CAA as they have not entered India on or before 31.12.2014, the date set by the CAA. Further, dozens of lawmakers from Afghanistan and Myanmar have taken shelter in India during 2021 and they remain excluded from any protection.
Mr Chakma asserted, "The refugees shall continue to flee to India. Unless India adopts a refugee law, the asylum seekers shall not register with the Government of India for mere deportation. This will not address the security concerns and will close the possibility of any repatriation. The absence of any refugee law is counter-productive. India needs to enact a refugee law,".