Report: Panel discussion and book release by CRG and RLS

Priya Singh and Sucharita Sengupta

Panel Discussion on Rohingya and Syrian Refugees by Calcutta Research Group, on 6 April 2017, supported by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS).

No other time was more apt perhaps than this to interrogate India’s refugee policies along with an appraisal of the contemporary global regime of care and protection for migrant communities. Civil war in Syria has been one of the worst humanitarian crises in the recent decade challenging Europe’s migration policy. Incessant deaths in the Mediterranean, in border detention camps, plight of fleeing refugees, women and trafficked victims- be it Syrians in Europe or Rohingyas in South Asia- for war, state violence, religious persecution, flood and so on, have amounted to an inordinate number of 60 million refugees worldwide. Perceptions resulting into worst manifestations of human rights violations have on the one hand drawn empathy, but on the other have unfurled xenophobia, attempting to curb migration in general. The recent policies of the U.S government concerning economic migration are indicative of this trend. India too is witnessing myriad forms of discrimination. From racial attack on Nigerian students in the capital to establishing detention centres in order to detect migrants in Assam and now identifying Rohingya refugees in Jammu in order to deport them back to Myanmar, thus evokes concerns for scholars and practitioners working on issues of human rights, gender, justice and refugees. These concerns culminated into a roundtable discussion by CRG on India’s migration policy; practice and release of the special issue of Refugee Watch Journal (A CRG Publication) on Syrian Refugees. The idea was to drive home the point that while the migration crisis in Europe has resulted into a number of regional initiatives and sensitisation of international media, the same has hardly ensued in case of the Rohingyas, world’s largest persecuted stales community in Asia. Therefore, there is a need to present the contemporary crisis of the global south as well along with the European scenario. While panelists of the round table discussion shared their experiences on the Asian scenario, the specialty of this issue of Refugee Watch is that it has articles based on extensive field research of the European scenario, especially Syrian refugees living as stateless people across the Middle East. The three panelists were Professor Ranabir Samaddar, Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies, CRG; Professor Paula Banerjee, Director, CRG and Dean of Arts, Calcutta University; Professor Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, Vice Chancellor, Rabindra Bharati University. The Panel discussion was chaired by Professor Samita Sen, Director, School of Women’s Studies and Dean, Faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies, Law and Management, Jadavpur University.

Ranabir Samaddar initiated the discussion with an Introduction to India’s refugee policy. By referring to CRG’s body of work on Refugees and migrants he said the problems they had discussed long back are equally relevant and pertinent in the contemporary time. Fundamental questions like who is an Indian or a foreigner, what happens to Indians working as indentured labour in foreign lands, were crucial questions during the colonial decade. In the post colonial period, the most important debate surrounding forced migration in India among scholars and human rights community was whether India was right in not signing the 1951 refugee policy. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and global communities had condemned India for being a non signatory, albeit India rendering rehabilitation, care and protection to various migrant communities. Nationalists maintained, even without signing the convention India had a good migration policy. While Samaddar and members of the CRG, pioneers in migration studies in India had engaged with this debate, they had also decided to go beyond by examining India’s administrative decisions, policy recommendations, foreign policy aspects, strategic dimension, and legal dimensions of India’s refugee policy. The other thing that they did was to frame the entire question in terms of ethics of care and power. This implies, India by providing care to people in need of protection, could gather power in its own hands, to rule not only citizens, but also aliens and foreigners. Another important aspect of Indian refugee policy was that Indian case laws have contributed a lot to the development of refugees. India has no national refugee protection act and has avoided any kind of legal obligation but it does not mean that India has not protected refugees or asylum seekers within its territory. There have been substantial positive efforts too by individuals. For instance around 2007-08 there was a strong movement among Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) headed by Justice Bhagwati in South Asia. The EPG was encouraged by the African Charter of Human Rights, where the African nations took courageous steps by widening the ambit of defining who could be called a victim of forced migration. In this context, Samaddar also referred to the Bali process, where states of South East Asia and Australia had gathered to pass resolution on victims of trafficking. However by and large India has shied away from such international or regional groupings. Samaddar concluded by arguing for the need of a regional framework for migrant communities. Keeping in mind cross-border international trade and labour markets, borders should not be looked upon as solely demarcating lines with a security centric model. Xenophobia or terrorism should not result into restricting migration; rather policymakers should address real issues like deprivation, disenfranchisement, dispossession, discrimination and injustice.

Paula Banerjee emphasized on the gender dimension as an extremely crucial aspect in the study of Forced Migration. She said, gender has been a popularized notion from the 1990s, but still we are scratching the surface. Causes for forced migration are related to vulnerabilities of people and vulnerabilities of women and men are societally seen as different. The whole notion of citizenship for men is glorified because they are expected to die for the country. This entire process is a masculinisation of the space that is given. The opposite of death is however women’s ability to give birth to citizens, which unfortunately has been forever undermined. So right from the beginning, there has been a hierarchy in the official discourse surrounding notions of citizenship. So, gender is an important tool to understand not only issues relating to citizenship but marginalization of women among migrant communities is an inevitable extension of this logic. In the context of India the discussion is very relevant since India houses a large number of refugees. Banerjee then went on to talk about the partition of India that resulted into 15 million refugees. The result of exchange of population had a tremendous effect on women, since till 1967 they could not represent themselves as complete citizens. Gendered debates therefore throw open crucial questions on resources, ownership and power in any given society. Women are the most pauperised section in any group. So unless we bring gender centrally to the discussion of migration studies, we will be unable to understand the whole notion of forced migration in its entirety.

Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury talked in detail about the Rohingyas of Myanmar. India’s role here becomes very important because many Rohingyas live in India, and in the neighbouring country Bangladesh. Basu Ray Chaudhury is one of the editors of a Report on Rohingyas prepared by CRG that highlights the recent global attention surrounding their deaths while crossing the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea on rickety flotillas. The report also highlights the fact that in India, unlike mandate refugees, the Rohingyas are mistaken as Bangladeshi nationals for their linguistic similarity. According to the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs there are about 55700 Rohingyas based in Jammu, and the government suspects that there could be more, around 7000 in Jammu and Kashmir, especially Jammu alone. Basu Ray Chaudhury argued, Jammu and Kashmir is a sensitive region and the Indian government is further apprehensive because Rohingyas are ethnic Muslim communities. They are supposed to be more “prone to radicalism” by a recent governmental report . It is also interesting that the government of India is reluctant to accept even those Rohingyas living in India who are accepted by UNHCR as asylum seekers. On the contrary, they are considered to be ‘illegal infiltrators’ who have violated the foreigner’s act and hence they could be prosecuted and deported back. Since the 1982 citizenship act, Rohingyas have been rendered as non-citizens in Myanmar, and they have been subjected to horrific, gruesome violence, with their houses burnt and women raped. Many of them had to thus flee to Bangladesh, geographically closest to the Rakhine State in Myanmar. The Indian government’s reluctance to accept Rohingyas as asylum seekers, testifies to growing xenophobia and Islamophobia in the world as well as in India is no exception to it. So the government of India has been referring to Rohingyas as ‘Rohingya Muslims’, wherein their religion becomes a crucial marker of their identity. The CRG report , which was published a year back, contains brief data on Rohingyas living in different states of India. There are 6684 Rohingya families in Jammu and Kashmir. The figure has now certainly increased. In Andhra Pradesh there are 1755 Rohingya families, Delhi- 760, Haryana -677, West Bengal- 361, additionally, many of them have been living in various prisons of West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh-111, Punjab- 15, Maharashtra- 11 families and so. The total figure was 10565. Instead of drawing empathy, these figures have made the Indian government extremely anxious. The men within the community in India work as rag pickers or rickshaw pullers, women in garments industries, as sex workers, domestic help, and they are not in a position to go back to Myanmar. Recent statement by Aung Su Kyi to BBC was that she has rubbished the notion of “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingyas in Myanmar (For full report see This indicates that even after restoration of democracy in Myanmar, following a prolonged military rule, nothing has really changed. Even Su Kyi is in denial of the amount of violence that the Rohingyas are subjected to in Myanmar, compelling them to flee to neighbouring countries for asylum. In absence of official entry permits, they are being incarcerated in large numbers, as in the case of India. Paula Banerjee along with other researchers of CRG has personally toured some of the prisons in West Bengal where Rohingya women are incarcerated and due to the lack of a proper legal framework, whose future of repatriation looks impossible. Where should they go back when Myanmar does not recognize them as citizens? – asks Banerjee. So while after Aylan Kurdi’s death, the world woke up to the reality of the Syrian refugees evoking humanitarian responses from every quarter, the same is yet to follow in case of the Rohingyas. So, Basu Ray Chaudhury, too like Samaddar, argued that there needs to be some kind of a regional mechanism in South and Southeast Asia, otherwise a solution to the Rohingya problem is unlikely. The tendency to securitise borders in order to combat flows of refugees also falls short of any ethics of care.

Release of Special Issue on Syrian Refugees by Katja Hermann, Head of the Asia and Middle East Department, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

Refugee Watch No 48.


The Syrian civil war is assuming a whole new dimension with new intriguing alliances in the making and old and new players staking their claims in the new ‘Great Game.’ The direct consequence and real tragedy in human terms of this anarchic situation is the colossal forced displacement of the Syrian population. While this ‘Great Game’ unfolds in Syria, the refugee crisis which has shaken the world has come to be defined in a constricted sense as the Syrians fleeing the civil war and trying to enter Europe. There are an estimated 60 million refugees in the world. The annual figure multiplied in the past year primarily due to the Syrian crisis. Since 2011, in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, the violent civil war in Syria has displaced more than half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million. Even in the midst of a ceasefire, widespread human rights violation, including the use of chemical weapons and large scale destruction of cities continue unabated. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around 6.5 million people have become asylum seekers and refugees. An estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of the civil war and around 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. In other words, Syrians represent 1 in 5 refugees globally with more than 306,000 Syrian children born as refugees. The majority have sought refuge in the neighbouring countries (97%) of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey; many more continue to make the arduous journey to Europe on land and sea in search of safety. The outcome to the present conflict is difficult to foresee. With the recent involvement of Russia, Iran and Turkey, the scenario continues to fluctuate, with the only constant being the steady exodus of Syrians from their homeland. Keeping in mind the gravity and scale of the Syrian displacement, the special issue of Refugee Watch exclusively focuses on the predicament of the Syrian people, with ‘particular emphasis on those living as stateless people in neighbouring countries across the Middle East.’
As millions of Syrians continue to be displaced due to the ongoing conflict in their homeland, it is important that a critical explanation and interpretation of the global perception and reaction to the refugee crisis is offered by ‘engaged scholarship’. The articles compiled in this issue examine various aspects of the Syrian refugee crisis in an attempt to situate it in historical and global terms. The issue analyses the changing nature of the global refugee and immigration regime in response to the Syrian crisis. The authors of this special issue critically examine the Syrian crisis and exodus in its myriad forms and waves. The emphases is on the debates within the Global South with a view to shift the spotlight from Europe and its crisis and rethink the issue with the focus on Syrians themselves and the conditions in the Middle East and North Africa and its surroundings. Nergis Canefe, the guest editor of the issue explores the European response to the Syrian exodus, Priya Singh examines the politics and policies of the European Union with reference to the Syrian refugees, Pinar Uyan Semerci and Emre Erdogan deal with the difficulties faced by the Syrians in Turkey, Howard Adelman offers a commentary on the official Canadian response to the Syrian immigrants, Kathryn E.T.Dennler provides a micro analysis of the experience of the Syrians in Lesvos, Greece, Chiara Denaro analyses the shifting content of the right to asylum in the context of the Syrian refugees in Lesvos, Sicily and Melilla and Belma Kurtisoglu, Selda Ozturk and Hussain Hajj in an ethno musical account explore the relationship between music, migration and displacement.
The issue can be accessed here

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