On Monday, the Ministry of Home Affairs, responding to a petition by two Rohingya refugees who have challenged the government’s proposed move to deport them, informed the Supreme Court that the principle of non-refoulement — of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution — was not binding on it since India had not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. In its affidavit, the MHA also said that though India was a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, its scope did not extend to non-refoulement.
Yet, contrary to the government stand in court, India took a strong position in favour of non-refoulement as recently as July this year, at an international meet in Geneva convened by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Held on July 10, the meeting was the first in a series convened by UNHCR to discuss a “global compact” on refugees. The meetings are being held following the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which all 193 UN members signed.
The states agreed that protecting those who are forced to flee and supporting the countries that shelter them are shared international responsibilities, to be borne “more equitably and predictably”.
One of the 12 countries to make a statement at the July meet, India was represented by Anil Rai, Counsellor (Humanitarian Affairs) at the Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva. “We support the concept of Burden Sharing, including relocation of refugees on case to case basis, that too with the consent of the refugees. While doing so, we need to be cautious not to open the path for re-defining the Refugee Convention and its protocol, and in no case diluting the principle of ‘non-refoulement’,” Rai said in a statement, available on the website of the Ministry of External Affairs.
“Finally, we may like to point out towards growing trend of increasing the qualification bar for granting of refugee status by adopting of opaque mechanisms. This has led to disqualification of large number of applicants, making them irregular and unknowingly pushing them to greater degree of vulnerability. This approach needs a serious introspection,” Rai said.
The next thematic discussion at the UNHCR is in October. India’s participation at these sessions is consequent to it being a signatory of the the New York Declaration. The UNHCR says it covers all refugees, including those those who flee individual persecution, as well as those fleeing armed conflict or violence associated with one or more of the above-noted grounds. It includes those fleeing State and non-State actors and has been the basis for providing protection, among others, for those escaping war, conflict, human rights abuses, gang violence, domestic abuse and other forms of harm.
The Declaration also sets out the main elements of a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework. According to the UNHCR, the framework presents a comprehensive response designed to ensure (a) rapid and well-supported reception and admission measures; (b) support for immediate and ongoing needs (e.g., protection, health, education); (c) assistance to national/local institutions and communities receiving refugees; and, (d) expanded opportunities for durable solutions.