The Refugee Dispute and a Clash of Governments
The Crisis in the Backyard
“Those people who came from Myanmar are our brothers and sisters. We have family ties with them” said Zoramthanga, the chief minister of Mizoram in a recent interview with ANI. In a letter dated March 18 to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Mizoram CM reiterated, “India cannot not turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in front of us in our own backyard”.
Image Credits: Cartoon Movement
On February 1, the military in Myanmar took control over the civilian politics and seized the powers in a coup d'état, declaring a yearlong state of emergency after Aung San Suu Kyi’s party National League for Democracy (NLD) had a landslide victory in the general elections of 2020. The opposition, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), backed by Myanmar’s army, said in a press conference that it did not approve the results of the elections, and pointed out irregularities and flaws in the system. After the coup took place, the military arrested Aung Suu Kyi and took her to an unknown location. There have been several peaceful and democratic protests against the military regime and the arrests of Ms. Suu Kyi and other pro-democratic leaders. The military responded with barbarian cruelty to the protesters, showering bullets on them. The ruling Generals marked the Armed Forces Day of March 27 (which historically commemorates the Burmese army's resistance to Japanese occupation in 1945) by killing over 100 people in one of the most terrifying days since independence. So far, the death toll has reached over 700. The military crackdown in Myanmar has resulted in the migration of refugees in large numbers to Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur.
Myanmar, also called Burma, shares an unfenced frontier of 510 km with the Indian state of Mizoram. There exists a Free Movement Regime (FMR) between Myanmar and Mizoram by which residents on either side of the border can travel up to 16 km into another border and stay there for 14 days without visas. The FMR has been suspended since March 2020 on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. The refugees have taken the benefit of the situation to enter Mizoram. The Burmese police personnel and military soldiers who have refused to follow the orders to shoot their own people and the local people of Myanmar who have escaped military raids, are among the refugees who have migrated. There has been a conflict between the state government of Mizoram and the Home Ministry of India vis-à-vis providing shelter to the refugees from Myanmar. The government of Mizoram is providing shelter to the refugees from a humanitarian and ethnic perspective. On the other hand, the Home Ministry has written a letter to the chief secretaries of all the states sharing borders with Myanmar to halt the influx of the refugees and return them politely. In addition, it has also deployed additional forces along the border to stop the influx.
A History of Refugees
On 4th October 1967, the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees defined a refugee as “a person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such a fear, is unwilling to avail himself the protection of that country.” Around 146 member countries are parties to the protocol. Although the above definition may seem very clear in its approach, many ambiguities, however, linger around the words ‘migration’ and ‘refugee’.
The first step in addressing the rights and freedoms of migrant workers was taken in the 1930s and in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The ILO Migration for Employment Convention 1949 and the 1998 ILO Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work aimed to provide recognition and protection to migrant workers. However, these are not legally binding treaties. Moreover, the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention sets out the rights of asylum seekers and the responsibilities of nations, but India is not a signatory to it. In 1994, the UNHCR also set up a five-member Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to assist South Asian nations in forging domestic refugee laws. But many argue that such endeavours take into account the activist’s point of view, and fail to consider broader aspects of national security, economy and demography. Therefore, in the lacuna of a concrete law dealing with refugees and illegal immigrants separately, all foreigners in India are covered in the Foreigners Act, 1946, according to which a citizen is simply “a person who is not a citizen of India” without specifying a category requiring humanitarian protection. The notion of a refugee under this legislation, thus, stands in perilous antinomy to the 1967 Protocol definition and has resulted in the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 which grants citizenship to non-Muslim migrants belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Jain and Parsi communities who came to the country from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan; on or before December 31, 2014, purely on humanitarian grounds.
The absence of a specific law governing the administration of refugees, accompanied by the country’s liberal democratic credentials and relatively sound economic status has lured millions of immigrants into India seeking protection from persecution, religious, racial and linguistic hegemony, looking towards brighter economic prospects. The issue has conspicuously remained contentious due to the socio-political conflicts it has brought in its wake. Along with an exodus of Hindus and Sikhs, a significant number of Muslims migrated during the Partition of 1947 from Pakistan and erstwhile East Pakistan, and the memories of the communal violence that followed are still afresh in many literary works. During such unprecedented times, the government of India gave people the freedom to choose the side people wanted to live in. Consequently, an estimated 16.7 million people crossed the border within four years of partition.
The ad hocism of the legal framework concerning refugees thus enables the government to admit certain groups of asylum seekers for whatever political or geopolitical reasons. But, at the same time, it trickles the way for fatuous domestic politicization of the issue, the epitome of which is the case of Bangladeshi immigrants in India. Many reports allegedly claim that around 10 million people fled Bangladesh during its war of independence in 1971. Similar cultural backgrounds and the ease of crossing a porous border have enabled them to merge with the local populations of Bengal and Assam and increase copiously over the years. Today, they even bear ration cards, voter ID cards and Aadhar cards, thus forming a turbid identity over the local population and making their identification a juggernaut task, something which the NRC confidently asserts to fulfill. From the formation of separatist groups demanding a ‘Greater Bangladesh’ in stark contrast to the nationalist identities favouring Hindu Bangladeshis over the “infiltrators”, to the genesis of a clash in the political arena with the communist formations seeking tutelary of the refugees in the guise of securing the “vote banks”; the migratory Bangladeshi birds have not left any stone unturned in stirring a commotion in the already polluted skies of Indian politics.
The most recent waves of migration into India have been those of the Rohingya Muslims and the Chin. The Indian government has put the former in the category of illegal immigrants posing security threats and has, thus, urged Myanmar to summon back their people. The Burmese abhor the Rohingyas, stripping them of citizenship. Even their most favoured destination country, Bangladesh, opines that they are Burmese in origin and, hence, shall be protected in Myanmar. So every itinerary of these ‘stateless’ people ultimately appears to be a snake pit. Further aggravating the problem, the Chins began to cross the borders into India seeking protection following the political alarums and excursions in Myanmar. The Indian scenario chivied by troubled people entering from all sides, therefore, presents the picture of a jumbled mess.
Fathoming the Consequences
Migration movements, mostly have been a bone of contention between the proponents of the open-door policy and those who are conscious about its social, political, and economic effects. The same has caused the status quo between the government of India and the state government of Mizoram.
The ‘Outsider’ population in Mizoram includes migrant workers from mainland India (known locally as vai), undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, and undocumented migrants and refugees from Myanmar (predominantly ethnic Chin). Mainland Indians are not considered belonging to Mizoram though they share Indian citizenship, as Mizo attitudes to mainland Indians are shaped by a total absence of cultural affinity and by the memory of cruelties inflicted during the insurgency. But the Mizo attitude towards Chin refugees changes as they consider them as brothers and sisters. Mizoram and Chin State are small and ethnically distinct sub-states that have considerably more in common with each other than with their respective ‘parent’ nations of India and Myanmar. The strong strings of historical, cultural, and ethnic relations attached between the Mizo and the Chin hint that those who arrive will easily integrate into Mizoram. While this has been true to a particular extent, there are other perceptions about the Chin in Mizoram as well. They are also host to several social problems, which include their role in the production and sale of alcohol and drugs in the state. Crime and social problems are attributed to Burmese presence and influence. Resentment of the Chin appears to be driven by a variety of ‘fears of the other’, including fear of domination by an outsider population that is shared by other north-eastern territories and is acute in relation to Bangladeshi migrants, Indian mainland workers and Muslim migrants. Other fears include the risk of fostering disunity in Mizoram and weakening the society through moral and cultural deterioration.
The location of the Indo-Myanmar border makes it very difficult for the security forces to manage it effectively and, therefore, throws up many challenges. The internal dynamics of the region in terms of clan loyalties of the tribal people, inter-tribal clashes, insurgency and trans-border ethnic ties also adversely affect the security of border areas. The strong bonds between the tribes, such as Nagas, Kukis, Chin, who live astride the border, help insurgents in finding safe haven in Myanmar. Arms and ammunition, precious stones, and Chinese-made consumer products are smuggled into India illegally. Human trafficking is uncontrolled and widespread at the border. The FMR has also contributed to increased smuggling in the region. Status quo Assam rifles are deployed at the Myanmar border. The biggest foreign link of Northeast insurgents is believed to be with Myanmar. At a time when Mizoram and other north-eastern states are witnessing a huge influx of refugees, there is a serious threat posed to the internal security of India.
There are positive and negative implications of the influx of migrant refugees on the economy, and the latter clearly outweighs the former. Refugee influx in large numbers may lead to conflict for resources such as land, water, housing, food, and healthcare facilities. Apart from this, it can affect the ecology and infrastructure of a state as well. For example, in Assam, a higher population growth rate has led to more spending by the government on basic infrastructure and healthcare. Migrants put tremendous pressure on land because migration causes average landholding to decline. The debt burden of the government increases because of an increase in population as revenue from all sources as well as loans have to be pulled together to manage food supply for the growing population. Most of the migrant economy is run through informal channels, which encourages black market economy, riddled with corruption and without adequate revenue/tax collection. Migration has also resulted in various illegal trades flourishing at the borders. Unemployment among migrant refugees puts them into anti-social activities. Mizoram may face similar problems if the influx remains uncontrolled. Positive implications include the availability of labourers and a large workforce of women as domestic help. Money earned by the migrant workforces is circulated within the state in small businesses thus boosting the economy of the state.
Despite the freight of allegations pouring in from external as well as internal critiques concerning the provision of asylum to refugees, India has maintained a stellar record of the same. “New Delhi has been one of the largest recipients of refugees in the world in spite of not being a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol'' and most of this, evidently, has come at a huge cost.
Political luminaries and scholars propose dichotomous but equally propitious solutions to the problem of illegal migration. The first group emphasizes the completion of NPR/NRC to distinguish asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. Furthermore, it also sees India as a fair recipient of refugees as well as economic migrants and, thus, puts forth the alternative of seeking aid from international organizations like UNHCR and IOM to break down the complexities of such issues. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the influence of UNHRC has largely proven positive in the voluntary repatriation of Sri Lankan Tamils. Moreover, the UNHCR's involvement may prevent further influx as it prioritises the creation of conditions to help refugees return to their country of origin. Similarly, the IOM could act as a neutral body in the verification mechanism for assessing the status of Bangladeshi immigrants.
The other group clearly stands opposed to the 1951 UNHCR convention that justifies asylum for reasons barring economic causes. This highlights “the West’s lopsided obsession with civil and political rights at the cost of economic rights'' which lacks a “moral backing”. This also comes at a time when the West itself is violating the convention in full spirits. It is evident from their non-entrée (no-entry) regime characterized by visa restrictions, carrier sanctions, interdictions, third safe-country rule, restrictive interpretations of the definition of ‘refugee’, and widespread practices of detention. Apart from this, the group perceives the CAA-NRC as a highly discriminatory policy against already discriminated people as it yearns to achieve refugee avoidance rather than refugee protection.
Whatever path the country may choose, it is pivotal to legislate a domestic refugee law regularizing the stay of legal immigrants. At the same time, it should encourage refugees to voluntarily reveal their identities by providing incentives like refugee status and work permits, permission to stay and work during the verification period, citizenship rights and some monetary allowances. This is vital, as in the absence of proper legal measures, refugee documentation, and work permit, refugees often tend to opt for illicit means of preventing repatriation and, hence, become illegal immigrants. Similarly, under the Foreigners Act, penal action should be taken against those harbouring a foreign national, concealing his presence, or facilitating illegal immigration. The absence of such legislation may invite geopolitical considerations. In this regard, if we assume that India provides asylum to the Chins, which may exasperate the Generals in Naypyitaw, Beijing would spur into action harming the diplomatic relations of New Delhi with Myanmar. On the other hand, if we envisage a refugee law in place, it could temper the expectations of the Burmese government to return the fleeing Chins and curb a political conundrum in India. Thus, it is high tide that we replace this ‘minatory slipshod’ with antidotal legislation that serves the interests of the country and the refugees.
By Naman Negi (Guest Writer) and Vibhuti Pathak
Naman is a student of Tata Institute of Social Sciences. He is pursuing his bachelors in social work with specialization in rural development. He has a keen interest in politics, current affairs, society and likes to read and write on these topics. He loves reading and watching non-fiction crime thrillers, investigative stories and sitcoms. His favourite web series is “The Family Man”.
Vibhuti is a student of History at the Hindu College. He is an enthusiastic learner, amateur writer, and diehard fan of Joey-Chandler duo from the sitcom ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S.’. He loves to venture deep into vague topics about polity, society and history.
Kirsten McConnachie, “Boundaries and Belonging in the Indo-Myanmar Borderlands: Chin refugees in Mizoram”
Madhumita Sharma, “A study of migration from Bangladesh to Assam, India and its impact”
Ashok Kumar, Vipul Anekant, “Challenges to Internal Security of India”
Happymon Jacob, “India does have a refugee problem”, The Hindu