Here is how various refugee communities have fared in India

Here is how various refugee communities have fared in India

India doesn’t have any law dealing with refugees. An utterly humanitarian matter like the ‘refugees’ has come to be influenced by considerations of national security or relations between countries.

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FILE PHOTO – A family, who says they belong to the Burmese Rohingya Community from Myanmar, eats their breakfast at a makeshift shelter in a camp in New Delhi, India, May 14, 2012. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

The refugee situation in India remains complicated but the government’s move to grant citizenship to the Chakma and Hajong community has come as a welcome signal. The government announced that Chakma and Hajong refugees numbering nearly 100,000 and staying in the upper reaches of Arunachal Pradesh for around half a century now will get Indian citizenship.

The number of these refugees has increased from about 5,000 in 1964-69 to at least one lakh. Chakmas are Buddhists by faith, while Hajongs are Hindus. Both communities hail from the Chittagong Hill Tracts of the erstwhile East Pakistan. They fled after their land was submerged by the Kaptai dam in the 1960s and after facing religious persecution. Both refugee communities didn’t enjoy citizenship rights or the right to own land and lived on basic services provided by the state.

This will now change.

However, the fate of other refugee groups have been different. Refugees in India, including Chakmas and Hajongs, have faced hardships and without a uniform law. India has dealt with them on an ad hoc basis leading to different refugee issues.

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India hosts around 40,000 Rohingya Muslims, of whom 11,000 people are believed to carry official refugee identity cards from the UN. (REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain)

Who is a refugee?


Article 1 Para 2 of the 1951 United Nations Conventions defines a refugee as “a person who owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.

They are individuals that are recognised under the 1951 convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 Protocol relating to the Convention, the OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, 1969, and those people that are recognised as per the statutes of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Refugees are also those individuals who have been provided complementary forms of protection (permanent or temporary). After 2007, the people living in refugee-like situations are also included in the refugee population.

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Chennai: Sri Lankan Tamil refugee children performing at an event organised by United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to mark the World Refugee Day, in Chennai. PTI

How many refugees are there in India?

According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), India had a refugee population of just over 2 lakh by end of 2015. India has given shelter to Tibetans, Chakmas from Bangladesh, and refugees from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka etc.

What is the legal status of refugees in India?

India is not a signatory of several international laws and conventions that govern the inflow, status and treatment of refugees like the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention on the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol – the latter lays down the rights and services that the host country is stipulated to provide refugees. India, meanwhile, deals with refugees and asylum seekers and refugees on an ad hoc basis, consulting a basic refugee policy and administrative laws like 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.

What is the condition of different refugee communities in India?

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Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama waves to supporters during teachings after consecrating the Thupsung Dhargyeling Monastery in Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh, India. (AP Photo)


An independent state before 1950, Tibet was attacked by China under Mao Zedong’s leadership. China took control of Lhasa – the capital city of Tibet – by 1950. A year later, the Tibetan government was forced into signing a 17-point agreement with China that recognised China’s sovereignty over Tibet. After an 8-year long uprising against China’s violation of terms of the agreement and state-inflicted violence against Tibetans, destruction of thousands of monasteries, the 14th Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of his followers fled Tibet to take refuge in India in 1959. Now, the Dalai Lama lives in his abode at Dharamsala from where the small Tibetan government-in-exile operate. Every year, hundreds, if not thousands of Tibetans register in India as refugees.

The Tibetans are now spread across the country in around 35 designated settlements and other places. According to a Delhi High Court ruling in September 2016, Tibetans born between January 26, 1950, to July 1, 1987 are considered Indians by birth and can apply for passports. However, they have to forfeit any privileges or benefits from the Central Tibetan Administration for that. They will also have to leave designated Tibetan settlements if they are residing in them. They will also have to forfeit subsidies that come with a refugee certificate (RC) which is renewed on a yearly basis. The RC allows all the rights to Tibetans that are enjoyed by any Indian citizen except for the right to vote and right to government employment. Far reaching consequences include difficulties in obtaining licenses, inability to own land, difficulties in getting bank loans and other financial aid, or starting a business enterprise.

The brutal crackdown by the Pakistani Army upon the supporters of the independence of Bangladesh led to a large scale refugee exodus from East Pakistan to India. (Express Archive Photo)

Bangladeshi refugees in India

Since the partition of India in 1947, India has received waves of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from Bangladesh. The largest influx of refugees was seen during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Lakhs of people living in then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) escaped the genocide carried out by Pakistani military. Refugee settlements came up in states such as West Bengal, Meghalaya, Assam and Tripura. According to official estimates, as many as 10 million refugees were given shelter during the massacre.

As the massacres in Bangladesh escalated an estimated 10 million refugees fled to India causing financial hardship and instability in Bangladesh due to 1971 Bangladesh genocides as well as regional conflicts in the north-eastern states. But as former R&AW chief Sanjeev Tripathi wrote in a paper for Carnegie Endowment, “some of them later returned to their homes in Bangladesh, the majority chose to assimilate within India.”

The largely unsupervised inflow that continued for several decades after the liberation war meant that border states were posed with economic and strategic challenges. Several insurgent groups also came up in opposition to the government’s acceptance of the ‘illegal immigrants’ even as refugees faced persecution for the uncertainty in distinguishing between refugees, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants.

In Cooper’s camp lying 700 kms north of Calcutta, partition refugee are still struggling to gain recognition as Indian nationals. (Express Archive Photo)

Pakistani Refugees

Currently, India has at least 400 settlements of Pakistani Hindu refugees. Additionally, India on regular occasions has accepted pleas of refuge from persecuted religious minorities from Pakistan. Most of the refugee settlements are located in Gujarat and Rajasthan along the India-Pakistan border. The condition of the refugees in India, though vastly better from what they escaped in Pakistan, is not rosy.

Most of them live in refugee colonies with dilapidated shanties and work as daily wage labourers. Even a colony in the Capital – located at Majnu ka Tila near Kashmere Gate – is the picture of a regular street side slum. The government usually provides citizenship to Pakistani refugees after strenuous arguments, appeals and long periods of convincing the authorities owing to security concerns.

Since partition, the population of religious minorities in Pakistan has dwindled and thousands flee to India seeking protection from the persecution they were subjected to in Pakistan.

Afghan refugees

After the Afghan-Soviet war that lasted from 1979-1989, around 60,000 refugees from Afghanistan had arrived in India. UNHCR India and NHRC operate welfare programmes for the population. However, the community is yet to be recognised as refugees by the Government of India.

With the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, a wave of mass repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees took place. Since then, even though refugees have arrived in the country, they have been treated with much suspicion.

Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka

Around a lakh Sri Lankan Tamils currently live in India with most having arrived during or around the time of the Sri Lankan civil war. The people escaped violence and killings in Sri Lanka and sought refuge in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and also in some settlements in Kerala and Karnataka. The population of Sri Lankan Tamils is more than the number that arrived but official estimates place around 60,000 Tamil refugees living in Tamil Nadu’s 109 camps alone.

The benefits provided to them by the state government seem barely enough for survival. Each family is given 20 kg rice, Rs 1,000 for the family’s head, Rs 750 for adults and Rs 400 for children each month.


An ethnic Muslim community belonging to the Rakhine state of Myanmar, Rohingyas have been recognised as one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world. Even though they belong to Myanmar, Burmese authorities refuse to recognise them as citizens. Bangladesh and India, where they have sought refuge now, have said they can’t keep them permanently. In effect, Rohingyas are stateless people.

The Rohingyas are facing violence arguably to the extent of genocide in Rakhine with many calling it an act or attempt at ethnic cleansing. In recent months, Rohingyas have settled in places like Delhi, Hyderabad, Kashmir, West Bengal and the northeastern states. However, the government has refused to recognise Rohingyas as refugees. UNHCR is, meanwhile, running a support program for them in India.

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Rohingya Muslim refugees hold placards and raise slogans against human rights violations in Myanmar during a protest at Jantar Mantar, in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Source: PTI)

The uncertainty over their citizenship is an ever continuing cause for worry. Former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa had promised dual citizenship to the refugees while the Opposition DMK was skeptical and opposed to the idea. The proposal has not been moved yet.


Presently, India doesn’t have any law dealing with refugees. An utterly humanitarian matter like the ‘refugees’ has come to be influenced by considerations of national security or relations between countries. In the past five years, three separate private member bills seeking amendments to the citizenship law have been introduced in the Parliament but none of them have seen the light of the day.