India has been a recipient of refugees since its independence and the presence of refugees influence India’s relations with its neighbours. This article discusses how the issue of Rohingya refugees affects India’s neighbourhood policy.
A displaced person who has left their home country and crossed international borders because they are unable or unwilling to return due to the fear of persecution owing to their ethnicity, religion, nationality, political views, etc., is known as a refugee. As per the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, Refugees are entitled to international protection and are protected from being sent back to countries where they face the threat of persecution. In other words, a refugee is a person or group of individuals who have been compelled to abandon their country, successfully navigated the asylum process, and have been provided protection by being granted refugee status. For India, the issue of Rohingya refugees has been an important one.
The province of Rakhine in western Myanmar is home to the ethnic group known as the Rohingyas, the majority of whom are Muslims. As opposed to the Burmese language that is widely spoken, they speak a Bengali dialect. Rohingya Muslims are culturally and ethnically closer to the people of Bangladesh, given that they are descendants of Bengali Muslims from the Chittagong area who had migrated to present-day Myanmar during the British Raj.
The government of Myanmar views the Rohingyas as people who immigrated to their country during colonial rule. Therefore, full citizenship for Rohingyas has not been conferred. A Rohingya (or any other ethnic minority) can only become a citizen of Myanmar (formerly Burma) under the terms of the Burmese Citizenship law passed in 1982 only if they can demonstrate that their ancestors lived there before 1823. Thus, People who could not provide documentation proving their presence before 1823 are considered as illegal migrants. Moreover, they are victims of harassment, torture, murder, and rape as happened in 2017 as well. Therefore, the United Nations considers Rohingyas as the world's most persecuted community.
In 2017, Burmese military launched a targeted campaign of persecution against Rohingyas. More than a million Rohingyas were forced to flee their homes in Rakhine state and had to settle in refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Other neighbouring countries also host Rohingyas. Refugee camps at Kutupalong and Nayapara are among the biggest and most crowded such camps in the world.
A smaller number of Rohingya refugees have settled in Indonesia, Nepal, and other countries in the region. In India, there are roughly 16,000 Rohingya refugees who have received UNHCR certification. The government estimates that more than 40,000 Rohingya refugees live in India, the bulk of whom lack documentation and reside in slums and camps all over India, including Hyderabad, Nuh, and Delhi, with the highest concentration in and around Jammu. Apart from these states, these refugees are in Assam, West Bengal, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana.
India's Refugee Policy
India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and yet hosts a large number of refugees. India does not have a national refugee policy as such. As a result, India enjoys flexibility to maintain a range of alternatives on the refugee issue. Any group of refugees may be treated as trespassers under the Foreigners Act or the Indian Passport Act since the government can proclaim any group of refugees as illegal immigrants, as it did with the Rohingya despite UNHCR verification.
However, India's Foreigners Act 1946 contains processes for deporting unauthorized immigrants. State governments, Union Territories, and the Bureau of Immigration under the Home Ministry had the authority to locate and remove foreign people residing illegally in India. Those who attempt to enter India unlawfully are stopped at the border and immediately returned.
Furthermore, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019 excludes Muslims from its ambit. It intends to offer citizenship exclusively to immigrants who are Hindu, Christian, Jain, Parsi, Sikh, or Buddhist and those who have been persecuted in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Myanmar shares a 1,600-km stretch of border with the four states of North-East i.e. Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh. To stop Rohingya migration, the Union government has urged these state governments to take appropriate action as per the law and keep a close vigil at the border. Since India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the state governments were informed that they lacked the right to declare any individual as a "refugee." A Refugee Protection Framework is indeed required for India.
India's Relations with Myanmar and Bangladesh after the Rohingya Crisis of 2017
The Rohingya refugee crisis has been a concern for India since it involved two of India's close neighbours, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. Myanmar is geostrategically crucial for India due to its geographic location as a bridge between South and Southeast Asia. It plays a significant part in India’s "Act East" and "Neighbourhood First" policies. Myanmar is the only Southeast Asian country with a land border with Northeast India.
India refrained from adopting an aggressive stance toward Myanmar regarding the Rohingya issue 2017 onwards. It even maintained its neutral stance when Myanmar was presented before the International Court of Justice on charges of genocide against the Rohingya. India has been careful to not take any position that will affect its ties with Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Geography makes it easier for Rohingyas to cross the border into Bangladesh and from Bangladesh to India. Many of these refugees cross the international boundaries illegally and create a considerable problem for India. India is worried that Pakistan’s ISI has found a foothold in the radicalized Rohingya youth. Rohingyas established a terrorist organization primarily to terrorise Myanmar’s Buddhist population. The organization is known as Harakah-al-Yaqin (HaY).
India was one of the first few states to offer aid and help to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Perhaps there is a perception in Bangladesh that India might have done much more to assist the country in addressing the problem. Rohingya refugees are one of the most significant factors influencing the Bangladesh’s internal politics, and its foreign policy towards Myanmar.
The situation in Myanmar, after the military coup in February 2021, is rapidly worsening into a severe humanitarian crisis, and it is starting to affect the region. Violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar persists unabatedly despite international provisions, treaties, conventions, and other diplomatic steps to stop atrocities, crimes, and aggressive attacks on people.
India will need to balance its ties with Myanmar and Bangladesh in the context of Rohingya refugees and the instability in Myanmar.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.