The Rohingya Question and India’s Record on Refugees

On 21 September 2017, India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh remarked that the government will not be “violating any international law” if it deports Rohingya refugees “as we are not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.”1


While it is true that India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees, India has provided shelter to Tibetans and Sri Lankans, amongst other refugees from neighbouring countries in the past.  

How does one place the current government’s stand on refugees amidst the history of India’s treatment of asylum seekers? What have been the legal positions that India has taken in the past on the refugee question? 

A reading list:


  • In 2008, Saurabh Bhattacharjee wrote about how the Indian state has treated a few refugee communities reasonably well but has not formulated a well-defined refugee law. He points out that judicial interventions have been case specific. The absence of clearly defined statutory standards has subjected refugees and asylum seekers to inconsistent and arbitrary government policies. [out of paywall]



  • In 2004, Omar Chaudhary said that the prevention of refoulement (translated roughly as the “turning back” of refugees), which includes both the rejection of refugees at the border as well as the deportation of refugees from inside India, lies at the very heart of refugee protection. Unfortunately, the scholars who identify the right of non-refoulement under Indian law overestimate the amount of legal protection for refugees in India. Chaudhary asserted that a sober assessment of Indian law reveals that refugees are not entitled to non-refoulement unless India adopts new legal obligations. 



  • In 2016, Nigel Harris stated that the respect for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention is inconsistent, and governments spend much time and ingenuity in dodging them.



  • In 1991, A G Noorani examined a court ruling in UK highlighting the fact that despite seemingly strict international laws protecting the rights of refugees, they have to circumvent the law in order to obtain these rights. He starts the article by saying that India has a strange record on refugees. It has been host to refugees from neighbouring countries even at considerable expense and inconvenience. But it refuses wilfully to ratify the International Convention on the Status of Refugees and has been known in some cases to refuse asylum to victims of persecution. 



  • In his 1993 paper titled "Rejected Peoples and Unwanted Migrants in-South Asia", Myron Weiner identified the various types of population movements across boundaries in South Asia, the internal social and political response to these flows, the impact of these flows on relations between the states and the ways in which the states have sought to deter unwanted flows when they were unable to control their borders. 








Featured Image: Representational Image, Pixabay/pladkani, CC0

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