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State responses to cross-border displacement in South Asia

European countries are now experiencing an unprecedented influx of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Europeans are trying to find out the causes of population displacement and measures to deal with the crises. Much can be learnt from the South Asian experience in dealing with the refugees. Over the last six decades cross-border displacement in this region has involved a dazzling array of different groups, from Assamese Muslims to Sindhi Hindus, from Tibetans to Burmese, from Sri Lankan Tamils to Afghans, and from Nepalis in Bhutan to Kashmiris in Nepal. Today, every South Asian metropolis is home to large communities of displaced people. For example, in Karachi, communities of Mohajirs (Partition immigrants from India) live side by side with later arrivals, mostly illegal, such as Burmese Rohingyas, Afghani Pashthuns, and Bihari Muslims. In Delhi, besides displaced Punjabis from Pakistan one can find Afghanis, Bangladeshis, Burmese, and Tibetans. Refugees and hosts are sharing the same urban space.

Mass exodus of refugees in the Indian subcontinent began at the time of Partition in 1947. Both Pakistan and India became prominent countries involved in sending and receiving refugees. Some 7 to 8 million Hindus and Sikhs arrived from West Pakistan to India and a little over 8 million displaced persons from East Pakistan sought asylum in eastern India between 1947 and 1971. The influx of Partition refugees in eastern India continued for a little over two decades. The crisis took a new turn when in 1971, some 10 million Bangladesh Liberation War refugees reached West Bengal, Tripura and Assam. Since then the flow has not stopped. In 1983, refugee crisis resurfaced, this time in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu which became a sanctuary for displaced Tamils from Sri Lanka.

Three points merit attention in a study on refugees in India. First, the Partition of the country or the fragmentation of India’s colonial state structure at the moment of decolonization triggered large population movements. As the new states of Pakistan and India came into being out of the rubble of what had been British India and 500-odd princely states, millions of cross-border migrants were on the move. In some areas, for instance, Punjab, there was a swift, bloody and almost complete exchange of people. In other areas, for example, Bengal, displacement was a long-drawn process that stretched over decades and is still going on. Partition looms large over the study of displaced people in India. This is not only because of the unprecedented numbers involved but also because state formation and cross-border migration took place simultaneously.

The humanitarian approach in dealing with refugees in South Asia has set examples for the rest of the world.

Definitions of citizenship developed gradually and remained contested. This was particularly clear in the east, where the provinces of Bengal and Assam were bisected to form the new entities of West Bengal and Assam (India), and East Bengal (Pakistan). Here, it remained possible for years to define citizenship in terms of either religious community or territorial location. It was not until five years after decolonization that efforts were made to pin down people’s citizenship unequivocally. Passports and visas were introduced in 1952, giving territoriality the upper hand. But in this region of South Asia, citizenship continues to be negotiable to an unusual degree, as was demonstrated by the Indira-Mujib Pact of 1972 and the current discussions on ‘indigeneity’ in Assam.

Second, India is not a signatory to the major international agreements on displaced people, the United Nations Convention (1951) and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1967). By not signing these international agreements, India has retained certain autonomy in dealing with refugees. The state deals with the refugees on a case by case basis, by using certain provisions in the Indian Foreigner’s Act of 1946. As a result, the study of cross-border displacement in this part of the world is full of conceptual pitfalls. Definitions vary; while some groups of people who cross the border are welcomed as citizens joining the nation, others receive only state (and UNHCR) support as refugees, and yet others are treated as migrants without official residence or citizenship. Many stay as undesirable ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘infiltrators’. The freedom that a non-signatory state enjoys in choosing a label that appears most convenient at the time of arrival not only landed displaced people in administrative quagmires but also hampered serious comparative research into cross-border displacement.

Finally, the treatment meted out to refugees in India has not been consistent. As the study shows, state responses to cross-border displacement have varied, both regarding different groups of displaced people and the same group over time. Many displaced people were ignored by the states in whose territory they found themselves, others remained on the receiving end of policies which covered the entire range from an occasional handout to rigorous institutionalization. Newcomers were often put into camps which might have been short-lived or of long duration. This study explains how the voices of the marginalized sections of the society, for example, the outcastes, tribes and urban poor, were muted in different ways, once they arrived in the country as refugees. But this is just one side of the story. On some occasions the Indian state upheld the principles of humanitarianism.

The humanitarian approach in dealing with refugees in South Asia has set examples for the rest of the world. Humanitarianism means an obligation on the part of the state to assist refugees, give asylum and look after relief and rehabilitation at any cost. The principal concern is to save human lives. As soon as the influx of refugees from East Pakistan began in April 1971, the Indian state offered assistance to refugees on humanitarian grounds. With the use of diplomacy along with humanitarian ideals, the state resolved an unprecedented crisis. India succeeded in conveying the message to the signatory states of UN Convention and Protocol that broader ideals of humanitarianism can be more effective in dealing with the refugees.

Featured image credit: UNHCR refugee hut, by Abel Kavanagh. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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