In the last few weeks, the world has witnessed horrifying images of refugees risking their lives in a desperate quest for safety, embarking on dangerous sea journeys across the Mediterranean to reach Europe from Africa and the Middle East. The annual Global Trends Report released by the UNHCR in June pegs the number of people forced to flee their countries due to persecution at 19.5 million, over half of them children. Europe, which is facing its worst refugee crisis since World War II, is currently under the scanner for the absence of an effective asylum mechanism. European countries at the frontline are overwhelmed and increasingly unwilling to accept more refugees due to lack of burden-sharing. Reacting to pictures of refugees found drowned off the coast of Turkey, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres issued a strong statement asking for more legal avenues for refugees to travel to Europe and other countries so that their passage to safety does not instead become a death trap. He called for a coherent response to the crisis from Europe as a whole. The European Commission recently proposed mandatory quotas for each EU country for refugee settlement. However, with several countries opposing this, it is unlikely that a consensus will be reached soon enough to respond to the immediate humanitarian challenge.
While Europe is grappling with this crisis, its repercussions have brought the plight of refugees to the forefront. This is a moment for all governments, including India’s, to re-examine their preparedness to respond to similar situations. India hosts more than two lakh refugees and is at the centre of refugee movements in the South Asian region. Despite this, India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, nor does it have a domestic asylum framework. The Indian refugee-protection framework has traditionally been based on a combination of executive policies and judicial pronouncements. India has also signed a number of international conventions that have a bearing on its obligations to refugees. Further, it has extended protection under a body of complementary law and practice to support refugees. For instance, the Right to Education Act applies to all children in India, including refugees. Similarly, refugees can benefit from government health services, justice systems, etc.
As a member of the UNHCR executive committee, India has repeatedly stated its commitment to protecting refugees. It has also emphasised the need for burden-sharing and cooperation with regard to refugee crises owing to conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan. But India has been reluctant to sign the Refugee Convention or adopt a national asylum law because it fears that this would encourage more refugee inflow. Though the region is collectively host to more than two million refugees, none of the South Asian countries are signatories to the Refugee Convention, nor do they have domestic asylum frameworks.
While India has been a generous host to several persecuted communities and does more than many signatory countries, it needs a coherent domestic asylum policy and to take the lead in devising strategies and approaches for asylum management. In the past, attempts have been made to devise a regional asylum law. In 1994, the UNHCR initiated a regional consultation in South Asia with this objective. Subsequently, a model asylum law was adopted at the 1997 Dhaka regional consultation. India constituted an eminent persons’ group under former Chief Justice of India P.N. Bhagwati, which developed a draft legislation to suit the country’s specific requirements. While this was presented to the Centre in 2000, no further steps were taken to enact it.
It is time to resurrect these attempts at devising a legal framework, at both the domestic and regional levels. As the only stable democracy in South Asia and an emerging power with aspirations to permanent membership of the UN Security Council, it is incumbent on the Indian government to lead by example and reinforce our historic commitment to refugee protection.
The writers run The Ara Trust, a centre for refugee and forced migration studies