World Refugee Day: What You Must Know About Refugees In India

Amnesty International India
20 June 2020 12:59 pm

Refugees across the world have been largely unaccounted for in governments response to COVID-19. Refugee settlements are just as vulnerable, if not more to the infection. On #WorldRefugeeDay, we look at what is the state of refugees and asylum seekers in India and how they are at an increased risk of COVID-19.

Who is a refugee?

Refugees are persons who fled their country because they feared or suffered persecution there due to “reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” They had valid reasons to believe that while they continue to fear or suffer persecution, their own government cannot or will not protect them.

What rights do refugees have?

Refugees are entitled to all human rights. They have the right to practice their beliefs, to move freely, to be free from torture and other degrading treatment to name a few. They also have the right to education, healthcare and work. The Constitution of India further solidifies their protection by affording them the fundamental rights to equality before law, to life and liberty and to practice and propagate one’s own religion under Articles 14, 15 and 25 respectively.

How many refugees does India host?

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a total of 244,094 refugees and asylum seekers are provided protection and assistance in India. Of these, 203,235 refugees are from Sri Lanka and Tibet and are protected by the Government of India while 40,859 are registered with UNHCR.

What laws govern refugees in India?

India does not have any special legislation governing refugees. All foreigners in India including those fleeing persecution and seeking protection in India are governed by the Foreigners Act of 1946 that views all foreigners from the lens of national security and does not make an exception on humanitarian grounds. The perception towards refugees change with recurring governments, leading to ambiguous policies on refugees.

What is the difference between the refugees protected by the Government of India and the UNHCR?

The refugees in India are divided into two categories: ‘mandate’ and ‘non-mandate’ population. Those who come to India from non-neighbouring countries and Myanmar like the Chins, Somalis, Eritreans, Iraqis, Palestinians are ‘mandate’ refugees, which means they can apply for refugee status under UNHCR’s (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) mandate and the agency provides most of them subsistence allowance and other assistance. Other protection-seeking populations in India that come from neighbouring countries, including Sri Lankans and Tibetans, are excluded from that support and from UNHCR’s mandate, and are thereby sometimes termed ‘non-mandate’. They are provided protection by the Government of India.

Do refugees in India have access to education?

Although many refugee children do get admission into primary schools in Delhi through the Right to Education Act, access to education for refugee children is restricted in India. Higher education is even more constrained but many refugee communities are able to study through help from civil society organisations and UNHCR.

Do refugees have the right to work in India?

Generally, refugees and asylum seekers do not have the right to work in Indiaand are not issued work permits/visas, leaving them with the sole option of engaging in unofficial, unskilled labour. They face numerous challenges in accessing the formal labour market due to their uncertain status in India. As COVID-19 rages across the country, many refugees have lost their jobs and are at risk of losing their housing as well.

What kind of documentation are refugees issued in India?

Refugees under the protection of the Government of India are provided government-issued documentation. They can usually access other identity documents in India like Aadhaar and PAN Cards. For refugees under the UNHCR’s mandate, they get a refugee card once recognised by the agency which has to be renewed every two years. This card is not widely recognised by Indian authorities. The government has also never officially recognised it as a proof of identity. They can apply for a Long Term Visa which is issued by the Government of India, but many face difficulties. If they are able to obtain the visa, it is often for very short periods of time, like 1-2 months. Once it expires, they again go through the whole application process again. Since it is difficult for refugees to access proper identity documents, it is also difficult for them to open bank accounts and access money transfer services. Therefore, they do not have savings or finances to rely upon, which is vital during this pandemic.

Do refugees have access to healthcare in India?

Even though India provides access to healthcare for all, there are many practical challenges for refugees trying to access healthcare services in India. These include language barriers, lack of accepted documentation and widespread discrimination against refugee communities.

Most refugees come from situations of conflict or have experienced extreme violence in their life. Now, in addition to coping with the trauma of living through violence and in a foreign country, they are facing the uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. This has negatively impacted the mental health of many refugees.

Physical distancing, which is crucial to protect oneself from the virus, is a luxury for most people and access to adequate and clean water and sanitation facilities is especially hard for refugees who live in informal camps/settlements.

Can refugees become citizens of India?

Protection-seekers including refugees and asylum seekers can acquire Indian citizenship through the process of naturalisation under Section 6 of the Citizenship Act,1955. This requires legally residing in India for 11 years. In December 2019, the Government of India passed an amendment to the Citizenship Act enabling irregular migrants to acquire Indian citizenship through naturalisation and registration. However, it restricted the eligibility to only Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who entered India on or before 31 December 2014. It also reduced the requirement of residence in India for citizenship by naturalisation from 11 years to 5 years for these particular communities. It effectively slammed the doors on persecuted Muslims such as Rohingyas of Myanmar, Hazaras of Afghanistan and Ahmadiyyas of Pakistan and Hindus such as Srilankan Tamils.

Written by Mrinal Sharma, Law and Policy Advisor and Nayantara Raja, Campaigner, Gender and Identity-based Violence at Amnesty International India.

Featured image is from the Rohingya camp in Bangladesh and is used for representational purposes only.