Every Action Counts : Towards a Resolution of the Refugee Question- A report on World Refugee Day

On the occasion of World Refugee Day, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in association with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) India, ActionAid and University of Mumbai organised a webinar titled “Challenges to Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Stateless People in India: The Need for an Inclusive Approach” on 20th June, 2020. Annesha Saha reports.

The panelists included Prof. Ranabir Samaddar, Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies, Calcutta Research Group; Dr. Colin Gonsalves, Sr. Advocate, Supreme Court of India and Director, Human Rights Law Network (HRLN); Ms. Ragini Trakroo Zutshi, Associate Protection Officer, UNHCR and Mr. Sandeep Chachra, Executive Director, ActionAid Association. The moderator for the session was Dr. K.M. Parivelan, Associate Professor and Chairperson, Centre for Refugees and Statelessness, TISS.

Dr. Parivelan opened the session by citing the rapid increase in the world’s displaced population, about 10 million people within the last decade. He spoke about the need for a proper definition of the term “refugee” and India’s recent citizenship laws that pose a challenge to the refugee question. Drawing a distinction between refugees and economic migrants, he viewed the Covid-19 pandemic as a context to revisit existing policies and norms which govern Indian refugee rights, anddiscuss the challenges faced by refugee communities and explore ways forward.

Drawing attention to the overwhelming situation in India, Prof. Samaddar referred to World Refugee Day (20th June) as a significant date. Although a tenuous line exists between forced vs. voluntary migration and economic vs. political migration, he reiterated Dr. Parivelan’s concern that refugees and victims of forced migration should in no way be confused. With thousands of workers attempting to walk back to their homes, he stressed on the inadequate understanding of the question of mobility and the workers’ right to migrate in the context of an epidemiological disaster. Referring to the rich farmers in southern U.S.A. who continue to force Hispanic workers to stay back in dangerous working conditions just so that agriculture can flourish, he singled out the present pandemic as a major watershed in terms of ideas of mobility and autonomy of migrants. With a view to explore both historical and experiential problems, he took on the question of a migrant’s access to public health. He sought to problematize the seemingly seamless idea of the “public”, independent of any fault lines of race, gender, caste, insider and intruder/outsider. He looked at how the notion of the “public” has been conceived and questioned whether the people walking back to their homes in eastern India did in fact form a part of the “public”. He addressed his concerns about the ways in which legality and public health continue to be defined, and how it contributes to a fundamental ruling out of the integration of refugees into the public sphere. In light of the dilemma of the migrant’s invisibility and the equally incredible variety of experiences he/she undergoes, Prof. Samaddar advocated for a critical interrogation of naturally held assumptions concerning migration and a revaluation of the distinctions between refugees, migrants and stateless individuals. In a final reference to Hannah Arendt and the question of rightlessness, he expressed his desire for a future society of care, which can be realised with implementation of changes at the grassroots level together with a revaluation of the country’s methods for combating the pandemic.

The next speaker was Dr. Colin Gonsalves, who started his discussion citing a recent instance when the Minister of State, Kiren Rijiju condemned the Rohingyas as illegal immigrants and demanded their deportation. In the course of his presentation, Dr. Gonsalves sought to invalidate the minister’s arguments. A senior advocate himself, Dr. Gonsalves drew attention to Article 21 of the Indian Constitution which guarantees the right to life, dignity and protection to all those within the Indian territory. He argued that since the Rohingyas fleeing persecution have managed to cross into Indian territory, they have an equal claim to these rights and therefore the Indian government can by no means push them into the hands of their persecutors. He refuted the minister’s claim that foreigners should not be allowed to have an opinion on who the Indian government allows in and what kind of treatment they would be offered, by arguing that in this case, a crucial distinction between an economic migrant and a refugee has been misinterpreted. He opined that eviction of refugees, if lawful at all, should be reviewed on an individual basis and that any other consideration runs the risk of becoming a crime against humanity. Next, he discussed the severe repercussions that Covid-19 and social distancing have on the people in prisons. Prisons are a major hub for the contagion and spread of the virus. He referred to a 2016 judgment passed by the Supreme Court of India which followed a mass release strategy and allowed anyone charged with imprisonment of seven years or less to be released. Since the maximum tenure of punishment for illegal immigrants in India is five years, by corollary Dr. Gonsalves argued – the Rohingyas should also be released from prisons. He also referred to the detention centers in Assam, and the Supreme Court verdict on the issue of statelessness which allowed the release of persons following the completion of two year’s sentence out of a possible five years. Referring to the CAA, Dr. Gonsalves opined that apart from having a quintessentially communal and political propaganda, there was no rationale behind the recent citizenship laws of the country. (The 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act amended the Citizenship Act of 1955 to make illegal migrants from neighbouring Muslim majority countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who had fled “religious persecution or fear of religious persecution” and who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians eligible for citizenship. However the Act excludes Muslim refugees from these countries or any refugees from the neighbouring non-Muslim majority countries. The 2019 amendment makes illegal migrants eligible for citizenship on the basis of religion whereas previously religion of the migrant was not a criterion. This violates Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees right to equality. Another major change that was brought in with the amendment was that the period of citizenship by naturalisation was relaxed from twelve years to six for persons belonging to the same six religions and three countries). The new law however gave rise to fears in Assam and other northeastern states that it would lead to a loss of political rights, culture and land rights. The new amendment in the Citizenship Act discriminates against the Muslims and violates the right to equality enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Violently condemning this horrendous exercise of classifying people who had arrived and settled in India some forty years ago, Mr. Gonsalves spoke against the immorality of imprisoning immigrants and stateless people in jails and detention centers, and consequently subjecting them to punitive measures. He also spoke about the plight of the Rohingyas in camps with no access to drinking water, sanitation, reproductive and educational facilities. Professing the need to treat refugees with basic dignity, he concluded that the constitutional rights of refugees does not and should not depend on anyone’s sympathy.

 Ms. Ragini Trakroo Zutshi began her talk by defining terms like “refugees”, “asylum seekers”, “displaced persons”, “stateless persons”, “returnees”. She proceeded to provide statistics regarding the world’s displaced population while particularly drawing attention to the vulnerable situations women and children find themselves in. She also outlined the UNHCR’s attempts at resolving the refugee question with solutions ranging from access to territory, protection, assistance and advocacy, resource mobilization to refugee status determination, efforts geared towards local integration and providing complimentary pathways to third world countries. Acknowledging that inclusion into local communities can be challenging for refugees owing to their already marginalized and vulnerable status, Ms. Zutshi also described the dire conditions of their habitation with limited access to sanitation and basic necessities, andinaccessibility of jobs in formal sectors. She then mentioned the various interventions on the part of the UNHCR in an attempt to mitigate these problems : two-way communication with vulnerable communities, telephonic follow-ups, using technology for dissemination of messages to persons of concern, ensuring better access to health, counseling services, cash-based assistance to the most vulnerable, distribution of food and hygiene items among asylum seekers, etc. She also discussed the ways in which the pandemic has posed challenges and impacted their livelihood. Her concluding remarks stressed on the idea that the vision of a just and equal world can be realised through inclusion and that every individual act can contribute to making a difference.

 Mr. Sandeep Chachra was the final speaker of the event. He shed light on how the refugee question continues to be an open wound with the numbers of displaced persons increasing every decade. With societies embracing chauvinism and xenophobia multiplying, the fear of the Other becomes manifestin the tensions between host communities and refugees. This being his point of departure, he spoke about the necessity of public discourses for the resolution of the refugee question, discourses that would build dialogue and trust and help mediate the conflict. Addressing the problems of hegemony and power relations in refugee camps, he also laid emphasis on conflict resolution beyond the camps. He pushed for the construction of refugee narratives that would help enkindle sustainable policy shifts in order to forward the interests of people who hang in time and history. He concluded with an overview of the goals that ActionAid wishes to achieve for a more equitable world.

 Closing the session, Dr. Parivelan hoped that the flow of different perspectives – philosophical, legal and institutional – would help facilitate future discussions about the challenges faced by refugees and the kind of shifts and approaches required. The floor was then opened to questions from viewers.  The webinar underlined that a possible solution to the refugee question could be  unlocked with a coordination among academia, government agencies, civil and private societies

Annesha Saha is an undergraduate student of English at Bethune College, Kolkata. She is an intern with Refugee Watch Online and can be reached at sahaannesha31@gmail.com.

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