India’s ‘asylum policy’: What it is, who it applies to

Baloch leader Brahumdagh Bugti is the latest in a long line of peoples — Tibetans, Sri Lankan Tamils, Pakistanis, Afghans, Bangladeshis, etc. — seeking to make India their home.

Written by Sagnik Chowdhury | Updated: September 21, 2016 12:16 am
Brahumdagh Bugti, balochistan, baloch leader, Brahumdagh Bugti asylum, Brahumdagh Bugti  political asylum Baloch leader Brahumdagh Bugti now lives in Switzerland.

Who is an asylum seeker, and how is he different from a refugee?

According to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, asylum seekers are individuals who have sought international protection and whose claims for refugee status have not yet been determined, irrespective of when they may have been lodged.

Refugees are individuals recognised under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, those recognised in accordance with the UNHCR Statute, individuals granted complementary forms of protection, or those enjoying temporary protection. Since 2007, the refugee population has also included people in a “refugee-like situations”.

At the end of 2015, according to the United Nations refugee body, there were 2,07,861 persons of concern in India, of whom 2,01,281 were refugees and 6,480 asylum seekers. India has, over the years, offered shelter to Tibetans, the Chakmas of Bangladesh, Afghans and ethnic Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka.

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So, does India have a uniform law on asylum seekers and refugees?

India has one of the largest refugee populations in South Asia, but is yet to enact a uniform law that addresses the issue of asylum. Neither is the term ‘refugee’ mentioned in any domestic law. India has not signed the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention on the Status of Refugees, or its 1967 Protocol that stipulates the rights and services host states must provide refugees.

The Passport (Entry of India) Act, 1920, The Passport Act, 1967, The Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939, The Foreigners Act, 1946, and The Foreigners Order, 1948, are consulted by Indian authorities with regard to the entry of refugees and asylum seekers.

India does, however, have an informal refugee regime broadly in line with international instruments. While it has no formal asylum policy, the government decides on granting asylum on an ad hoc and case-to-case basis.

In December 2015, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor introduced a Private Member’s Bill called the Asylum Bill, 2015, to provide for the establishment of a legal framework to consolidate and harmonise India’s refugee policies. The Bill is yet to be taken up for consideration.

What is the case of Baloch leader Brahumdagh Bugti?

The son of the slain Baloch leader Akbar Bugti fled Pakistan to Afghanistan in 2006 and, in 2010, moved to Switzerland. He has been in Geneva ever since, with his application for political asylum pending with the Swiss authorities. He now wants to apply for political asylum in India — which, he hopes, will enable him to get documents to travel and lobby for the Baloch cause at international fora. Once he applies for asylum, the Ministry of External Affairs will refer the matter to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which will process the request. In case the government takes a favourable decision, Bugti could be granted a long-term visa that would have to be renewed every year. Exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, who left Bangladesh in 1994 amid threats from fundamentalists for alleged blasphemy, has been given an Indian visa continuously since 2004.

What has been the legal position in the case of Tibetan refugees and Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka?

The initial wave of Tibetans who arrived in 1959 with the Dalai Lama were regarded as refugees and given asylum. They were given land and housing — which was discontinued for later batches of refugees — and a Registration Certificate (RC) that allowed them to enjoy all privileges of an Indian citizen except the right to vote and work for the government. The RC is a prerequisite for the Identity Certificate (IC), which is necessary for international travel. An IC is normally issued to Tibetans living in India, from the Regional Passport Office, Delhi, on the recommendation of the Bureau of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL), New Delhi.

Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are broadly classified as “camp refugees” and “non-camp refugees” based on socio-economic parameters. They cannot vote or own land in India, but are allowed to own cattle and purchase items for domestic use. Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are issued individual and family identity cards with details of names of family members, age, relationship, gender, date and location of arrival in India, education and their erstwhile address in Sri Lanka. They are also issued refugee certificates by the revenue inspector of their camp, which is required for their return to Sri Lanka.

What relaxations are granted to refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan?

In July 2016, the government approved a number of facilities aimed at easing difficulties faced by minority communities — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians — of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan staying in India on Long Term Visas. They were allowed to open bank accounts, purchase property for self-occupation and suitable accommodation for carrying out self-employment, take self-employment, and obtain driving licences, PAN cards and Aadhar numbers.

Free movement of such persons within the state or Union Territory in which they are staying, transfer of visa papers from one state to another, and the waiver of penalty on non-extension of short-term or long-term visas on time, were among other facilities that were allowed.

Earlier, in September 2015, the entry and stay of Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists from Pakistan and Bangladesh who came to India fearing religious persecution, either without valid documents or with documents whose validity had since expired, had been regularised by the government.

The government has decided to exempt Bangladeshis and Pakistanis belonging to minority communities who entered India on or before December 31, 2014, from the relevant provisions of rules and order made under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946, in respect of their entry and stay in India without such documents, or after the expiry of those documents.