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Northeast India Faces Floods of Migrants

Ethnic strife, communal violence, drive refuges from Bangladesh, Pakistan

While Europe faces a massive human refugee flow from civil strife and wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, India’s northeastern region, particularly the state of Assam, is facing flood of asylum seekers from Pakistan and Bangladesh that dwarfs Europe’s problems.

Although the European countries are seemingly willing to support the thousands of Middle Eastern refugees, the poverty-stricken Assam state, which has absorbed 10 million refugees on its own over several decades, is up in arms over the Modi government’s announcement on Sept.7 that India would support non-Muslim asylum seekers flowing in from Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Poverty, communal violence and ethnic tensions are driving minorities out of both Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that India has no refugee policy. Although the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has an office in New Delhi, recognizes nearly 185,000 refugees, it is well accepted that the actual number is far higher. Even though the UNHCR has been allowed to operate in the country since 1995, India has yet to sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. Moreover, New Delhi has not ratified the UN’s 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees.

India today officially is supporting nearly half a million asylum seekers from Tibet, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries. According to the World Refugee Survey, conducted by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the estimated number of refugees taking shelter in India would be over 456,000 nationals.

Nowhere are the problems more acute than in Northeastern India, which is almost severed from India by Bangladesh except for a narrow northern passage called the “chicken’s neck.” Largely ignored by New Delhi except at election time, it is chronically underdeveloped. It shares international borders – and perhaps more cultural affinity – with Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. It has been absorbing refugees from most of them. It remains largely remote from the central government and has been troubled by endemic violence for decades, much of it because of migration pressures – and a promise by India’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, that the results of the 1947 partition, in which an estimated 12.5 million Hindus and Muslims changed geographical sides with almost unimaginable violence, in which perhaps a million people died in the biggest mass migration in world history.

The seven-state region has the highest rate of population growth in the country. Migration has accounted for a substantial part of this growth and has also accounted for the tensions.

Politics behind the amnesty offer ?

Although the notification by the central government to allow for additional widespread immigration covered all religious minority communities, Assam’s residents believe New Delhi is actually favoring Hindu nationals from Pakistan and Bangladesh, including a considerable flow of Muslim migrants from Bangladesh. According to the critics, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party that Modi heads, will try to get the refugees registered as residents prior to the next state elections.

A long list of local NGOs has protested the flow of migrants, with a daylong strike called on Sept. 12 against the central government’s publication of the policy although some organizations have opposed the strike and supported New Delhi’s initiative. Bharat Bengali Udbastu Samannay Samity leaders – representing Bengali Hindus – have demanded permanent citizenship to the minority Bangladeshi nationals (read Hindu) in India, arguing that refugee status only to Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh will not solve the problem.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi also said he favors granting refugee status to Bangladeshi minorities entering Assam or other parts of India because of religious persecution. However, Tarun, an opposition National Congress Party veteran, said the state must not be overburdened.

Editor says Assam can’t support more

In an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister on Sept. 16, editor-journalist DN Chakrabarty argued that since 1947, Assam has already taken in more than 7 million illegal Muslim migrants from East Pakistan and later Bangladesh, and another 3 million Bengali Hindus either as illegal immigrants or refugees.

That enormous flood of refugees has the Assamese community gripped with fear of loss of identity over the past six decades, Chakrabarty wrote, urging the Union state government “not to inundate Assam with a fresh crop of refugees even on humanitarian grounds.”

“While the Assamese people have full sympathy with the persecuted minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh, they are not in a position to shoulder any extra burden of refugees from Bangladesh or elsewhere,” he said.

India’s refusal to sign the convention on refugees has been ascribed to its worries about internal security, relations with neighboring countries, pressure on its infrastructure, and demographic changes in states bearing the brunt of refugees.

“In fact, the country has been lauded for its liberal and restrained attitude towards refugees, whose burden it has mostly borne on its own without relying on international humanitarian aid. But the lack of a consistent policy and comprehensive laws to deal with refugees in India means that ‘ad-hocism’ and arbitrariness rule the roost,” asserted the editorial.

By then, a Guwahati based forum of like-minded nationalistic citizens, came out with the demand for a concrete refugee policy with a legal framework for India. The Patriotic People’s Front Assam (PPFA), in a statement issued on 16 September, also advocated for refugee status to those religious minorities from Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The statement pointed out that offering mere refugee status does not mean granting citizenship to those asylum seekers and hence it urged the people of Assam not to get carried over by the misdirected debate of “citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus” in the State.

“Even though a refugee in a country is legally allowed to enjoy some basic rights for life, liberty, equality, healthcare, primary education, work, etc., (s) he may not be entitled to have the status permanently. Once the refugee voluntarily prefers to return back to his/her country of origin (or any other country of his/her choice), for the situation/circumstance that made him/her a refugee is resolved/improved significantly, the asylum seeker would cease to receive those rights,” according to the statement.

The People’s front also claimed that the fleeing non-Muslim nationals of the Indian subcontinent (Bharatbarsa) can never be identified as foreigners in India as they were compelled to adopt their citizenship of Pakistan and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) without their consent. Those residents were not responsible for the division of India in 1947.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.