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I recently finished a five-month internship researching and writing about
refugee issues in New Delhi where I was fortunate to work hands-on with
Burmese and Bhutanese refugees. India's framework for dealing with refugees
and migrants is unique and I have written a short, non-exhaustive summary
for those of you interested in the diverse populations seeking refuge in the
country. You can find the summary below.
My internship with South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre provided me
with excellent guidance and I learned so much about migration and
displacement through my experience. I'll be looking for a position in the
field of refugee resettlement when I return to the US this month. Please
feel free to contact me with any comments, suggestions, or questions.
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**A short summary of India's refugee policies**
*According to UNHCR's latest statistics, India hosts 158,366 refugees,
migrants, and persons of concern; USCRI's estimate is 435,900. The
discrepancy can be attributed to the Indian Government's restrictions on
UNHCR and the country's ad hoc policy toward the determination of refugees.
India does not have a national framework for dealing with refugees and
asylum seekers and is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention (though it does
have a seat on UNHCR's Executive Committee). Instead, the Indian Government
discriminates depending on migrants' country of origin.
Except for Tibetan and Sri Lankan populations, India puts UNHCR in charge of
status determination; the Government dictates where UNHCR can operate and
which populations receive UNHCR protection. UNHCR does not have access to
borders or border regions – in fact, the organization works only in the
capital city, New Delhi, and the state of Tamil Nadu (which receives ethnic
Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka).
Asylum seekers entering India are treated differently according to their
country of origin. Asylum seekers can be divided into three rough
1. Tibetans and Sri Lankans: These populations are generally given
permission from the Government to stay in the country. For Tibetans holding
residency permits, this means that they can own property and legally seek
employment. For Sri Lankans, it means that they are able to reside in
India's only refugee camps in Tamil Nadu (which are funded by the State
2. UNHCR-recognized refugees in New Delhi: Mostly from Burma, Afghanistan,
Somalia, Sudan, and Iraq, these populations must reach New Delhi in order to
receive UNHCR recognition and protection. There are no camps in Delhi and
refugees live among the local population; some receive subsistence allowance
from UNHCR to assist with living expenses, others do not. Refugees under
UNHCR protection fall under India's Foreigners Act and have the same rights
as illegal immigrants (though are more difficult to deport since UNHCR
provides legal assistance). They are not permitted to work legally, cannot
own property, and must renew permits regularly. Their freedom of movement is
severely restricted in that they cannot legally reside outside the capital
city and must receive permission even to travel outside of Delhi. Even
though they are recognized by UNHCR, a startling number of children cannot
attend government schools due to lack of proper documentation.
3. Bhutanese and Nepali asylum seekers: The Government of India has advised
UNHCR not to recognize individuals from these countries since they are
legally permitted to reside in India without further red tape. However,
since many Bhutanese and Nepali migrants lack appropriate citizenship
documentation (for example, Lhotshampas from Bhutan whose citizenship was
revoked in the 1990s), they are prohibited from exercising these 'guaranteed
rights' (such as seeking employment, owning property, etc.).
Excluding Tibetans and Sri Lankans, asylum seekers who are unable or
unwilling to travel to New Delhi are in a precarious legal position, since
they receive no UNHCR protection and no recognition from the Indian
Government. The extent of the situation is demonstrated in the following
statistics: There are approximately 1800 UNHCR-recognized Burmese refugees
living in Delhi. Meanwhile, there are nearly 70,000 Burmese seeking shelter
in Mizoram state who possess no residency permits and no right to
employment; they are forced to bribe police in order to stay in the country.
It should be noted, however, that no refoulement cases were reported in
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