World Refugee Day

The United Nations World refugee day is observed each year on June 20th. “This event honors the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict and violence.” Mr. Shashi Tharoor spoke on the day in New Delhi. An article that covered his speech and my own questions to Mr.Tharoor on the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils.

Sourced from Deccan Herald
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) held a public lecture by Shashi Tharoor, former UN diplomat and MP, on the occasion of ‘World Refugee Day’ at the India International Centre.
UNHCR’s Chief of Mission in India, Montserrat Feixas Vihe chaired the evening. The theme for this year’s Refugee Day was ‘Restoring Hope’ and the subject of the lecture was ‘Preserving Asylum in India: Achievements and Challenges’.
In the 45 minute lecture, Tharoor outlined how India has been one of the best places for refugees from around the world, how it tends to them and what are the issues the country still faces. The lecture was followed by questions from the audience.

Shashi Tharoor, in his brilliant manner and eloquent speech, laid down many aspects of the asylum conditions in India. India has, since time immemorial, been an extremely welcoming home to refugees from all over the world. He talked about the Jews, Parsis, Christians, Zoroastrians and of course, the Muslims who had been flocking to India because of ‘a well founded fear of persecution.’
The best example that India can offer is that of Partition in 1947 when India was home to around 15 million people from across the borders on both sides.
However, India refused to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol inspite of being in practice of providing asylum for over 60 years. This, according to Tharoor, is a shining example of the “guff between legal position and reality.” In fact, in the discussions after the lecture, India being a non-signatory country of the Convention and Protocol was raised as major issue.
It is important to understand that when refugees come, they don’t just have a bag of belongings but also their hopes, aspirations, skills and dreams. India not only offers asylum to the displaced people, they’re given equal rights and those who obtain Indian passports also obtain the right to vote in addition to other rights. They can establish themselves here and be productive until they return but they will not be deported. Their return is subject to their wish.

There are, however, certain challenges that India has to face. While the refugees have work permit in the informal sector, it must be understood that this sector is very competitive and difficult, with people from all over the country also participating. In the Capital alone, apart from the 22,000 refugees, there will be people from smaller towns in the rat race. Poverty stricken refugees must be given work permits in all sectors, according to Tharoor. Another issue is the suspicion with which they are treated. What the refugees don’t realise is that in their new home, there could be equal distress. There is stereotyping and conservative mindset. In addition to poverty, they face discrimination as well. Indians need to be sensitised.

Tharoor says that India should move on from this modest position of not signing the Protocol or Convention. “Six decades of practice have the force of a customary law,” he said. There is also the need for a refugee status determination and we should be afraid of economic migrants as well. Since India offers so much comfort, other countries might create more refugees but there’s nothing much that can be done about it. India already did a military intervention in 1971 in East Pakistan. But once people flee, they flee, and what better than a welcoming nation like India?

My questions on the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee issues –

Do you think by & large worldwide the plight of SL Tamil refugees has been neglected as compared to those seeking asylum from countries in Africa or South East Asia?

I believe close to 70,000 SL Tamils still live in camps in Tamil Nadu. What are India’s current plans to rehabilitate them and integrate them with the locals? I believe they are being denied Indian citizenship. Grounds for denial? Is there a differentiation between Sri Lankan Tamils & Indian Tamils in SL for citizenship consideration if any by the Government? Can those Tamils in camps for over 12 years not remain permanently in India via naturalization if at all?

It is reported that an illegal group smuggles people from South India (mostly from camps) to Australia. They have been luring vulnerable Tamils with a promise to freedom and at a hefty price. Most boats are lost at sea and many cases of suicides reported due to debts they carry and subsequent failure to reach Australia. Kerala I believe is the preferred departure point for these illegal travelers to Australia. What is the Govt doing to reduce such incidents? It is obvious these people are fleeing inhuman conditions in the refugee camps. The fact that it has been easy for these people to flee Indian shores easily once again raises questions on our own ability to patrol our waters. What is the Government’s plan to stop such incidents?

Do you think US policy on terrorism automatically allocates a ‘perceived threat’ status to Tamils seeking asylum in the West or even here in India?

Why does India remain ‘soft’ on Sri Lanka despite it killing thousands of innocent Tamil civilians in SL’s ethnic conflict? AI in its report states 40,000 killed in 3 days. SL still has a military presence in the North, it is reported that the Military’s persecution continues. Is India’s ‘soft’ power helping here? Albeit, India did vote for UNHRC resolution against SL. Will India be taking up both the SL Tamil issues and the ongoing governance issues in Sri Lanka at the 18th SAARC summit or will it remain outside the summit’s purview?

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