India needs an asylum policy to be able to allocate resources appropriately, to monitor the sheltering of  refugees that it hosts, and to disallow unwanted infiltrators from entering its territory. 

By Manasa Venkataraman (@nasac)

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Caught off guard by millions of persecuted Syrians fleeing to safer lands, last year saw countries react differently to the sudden influx. Over the past year, many states have taken varying stances on providing asylum to refugees arriving from strife-ridden regimes. Influx, legal or illegal, by refugees or migrants seeking better opportunities, is not new to India. Although it is unlikely that Syrian refugees land at Indian shores to seek asylum (due to geographical difficulties), India has hosted refugees from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan from time to time without having a central asylum regime governing the providing of such harbour.

India needs a refugee policy. The absence of such a framework in India makes it prone to inconsistent and ad-hoc reactions to refugee crises – an unsustainable solution. Although three separate bills have been tabled before the Indian Parliament to bolster the Indian asylum policy, they remain pending.

In order to frame a robust asylum granting framework, it is essential to examine the cause that gives rise to this migration – unstable political environments, insurgencies by non-state actors and the precarious footing on which feeble governments stand are principal reasons. Persistent situations like this lead people to abandon their homes and flee to safer lands. International law recognizes this plight of refugees and urges sovereign nations to follow a principle of “non-refoulement”, i.e., host countries should not refuse to shelter refugees and turn them away to the country they fled from. This principle is so inherent to the protection of human rights that it forms part of customary international practice to shelter refugees on humanitarian grounds.

While it is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, 1951, India has followed the principle of non-refoulement whenever helpless asylum seekers have knocked on its doors. Nevertheless, it is essential to build regulations surrounding the non-refoulement principle that specify when the principle is to be invoked, what are the remedies for wrongful or non-invocation of the principle and how it is to be monitored.

Benchmark global practices are available for India to evaluate, before framing its own refugee policy. While Germany’s efforts earlier in 2015 opening its doors to refugees from Syria are well known, Australia has been criticized for having a controversial policy to cordon its coasts off to many asylum seekers. From providing “no benefits” to refugees upon their arrival on its coast to turning ships away to Indonesia and other South East Asian countries from international waters, Australia has undertaken several measures to create disincentives for refugees to take shelter on its territory.

India’s refugee policy must also strike a balance with its environmental and security related concerns in harbouring persons on its lands, especially via the seas. A refugee policy is only successful if India has the ability to control its borders, which in turn enables it in deciding whom it provides asylum to. As India’s coastline is vast and vulnerable, the need is felt now more than ever to create a robust and centralised coastal border patrolling and securing system.

Illegal and unregulated influx via the (already inadequately regulated) coasts are not only a blind spot in Indian national security but also interfere in the demographic makeup of the region. This affects it economically and politically as measures are framed bearing in mind the regulated persons in the region. Further, post facto regulation of immigrants becomes difficult as there was no law to regulate their entry in the first place.

As the protection of asylum seekers is a significant additional cost to the government, the refugee policy must introduce a system by which immigrants coming to India for economic or other gains are screened from persons seeking refugees. It is also advisable to place the refugees under the supervision of a Welfare or other ministry of the government rather than the military. In fact, smaller and less developed host countries (like Turkey and Jordan) are beginning to recognize the economic and infrastructural cost that is required to be borne to accord refugees the shelter they need.

Additionally, resettlement efforts must be made with the country from which such refugees arrive, after strife is over. Resettlement engagements may also be undertaken between India and other affluent countries that has better physical and economic infrastructure so that the refugee influx is better managed and does not cause a permanent strain on the resources of a less wealthy host country.

Manasa Venkataraman is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution and tweets from @nasac.

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