Activists urge India to adopt refugee law

Many refugees seek official recognition and access to services in order to make a better life for themselves here.

Darkness envelopes the refugee colony of Ramdev Nagar as night falls. There's no electricity here, despite being on the fringes of the large Indian city of Jodhpur. A flickering paraffin lamp reveals scrawny children and faces hungry with want.

The Hindu residents who migrated here from Pakistan to escape religious persecution find themselves stuck in this ghetto, known derisively as the "Houses of Pakistanis." Since the government does not recognize them as refugees and grant them citizenship, residents cannot land jobs.

"We have no country, no identity," says Prem Chand, a lanky young man who migrated with 15 members of his family last year from the Sindh province in Pakistan. "We don't even exist on paper."

Refugees like Mr. Chand are streaming into India from all parts of its unstable neighborhood. Yet how they are treated differs from state to state and ethnic group to ethnic group, leaving refugee advocates calling for a national law to ensure that settlements like Ramdev Nagar are not allowed to fall through the cracks.

"India cannot be inhuman to send back people who are persecuted or whose lives are in danger in their own countries," says Rajeev Dhawan from the Public Interest, Legal Support and Research Centre in New Delhi. "Currently, it's a cumbersome, ad-hoc process which does not expeditiously verify the status of refugees."

India's long porous borders and stable democracy makes it an attractive destination for refugees in the region - home to one-tenth of the global refugee population.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are more than 200,000 refugees seeking citizenship in India, and the numbers are rising by the day. There are 100,000 Tibetans, 60,000 Chin refugees from Burma, 51,000 Sri Lankan Tamils living in 112 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, and approximately 13,235 other UNHCR-recognized refugees in India.

"India is in such a neighborhood that generates refugees often," says Carol Batchelor, the chief of the UNHCR, in New Delhi.

The absence of uniform legislation on refugee protection, says Mr. Dhawan, means that political interests are dictating the different administrative measures being applied for different refugee groups in India.

Dhawan emphasizes the need for a law in India that clearly distinguishes a foreigner from a migrant and a refugee. Five years ago, he was a consultant for a draft proposal for a law on refugees by the UNHCR to the Law Ministry. Under the proposal, a refugee would be treated uniformly across India, eligible for humanitarian assistance, and allowed to remain if they aren't deemed a security threat.

Since then, the draft proposal has only been gathering dust with the Indian government. Officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, in New Delhi, say they recognize the need for a refugee policy and are mulling over the draft proposal, but are unable to give a timetable for it to come into force.

Currently, the Indian government supervises mass migrations only; individual cases are handled by the UNHCR. In effect, says Ravi Nair from the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, Delhi is "sub-contracting" to the UNHCR, a foreign agency, the "sovereign national function" of determining individual refugee cases.

But because India has not signed the Refugee Convention nor enacted federal legislation, the UNHCR cannot set up refugee processing centers along India's land and sea frontiers, where the bulk of refugees arrive. Individuals in India who wish to apply for refugee status must instead visit the UNHCR office in New Delhi, who then process the case and pass it along to the government for consideration.

Human rights violations against refugees are common and will continue until judicial safeguards are provided to citizens and noncitizens alike, says Hindu Singh Sodha in Jodhpur. He founded the Pak Visthapit Sangh (PVS), a nongovernmental organization that works with Pakistani refugees who migrated to India in the aftermath of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war.

PVS has been staging demonstrations and holding discussions with government officials and political leaders to highlight the plight of the refugees. Late last year, PVS's efforts paid off: The Government of India provided Indian citizenship to some 13,000 Pakistani refugees. Early this year, India also granted citizenship to 12 out of 9,673 Sikh Afghans seeking refuge in India.

In the darkness of the "Houses of Pakistanis," Hemant Kumar is lugging wood to set up a cooking fire. Eight years ago, he crossed over from Hyderabad, in Pakistan, to India, leaving his sister and aging mother behind. Despite his education, he had no other choice since then but to work as a bonded laborer - his calloused hands and chafed feet bear the evidence.

But there's hope now: After seven years of a rootless existence, Mr. Kumar received Indian citizenship last year, making it easier for him to get a job at a medical store in Jodhpur.

"If only this had happened sooner. We're not a vote bank for politicians in India, but we're humans, too, you know," he says. "Governments tend to forget that."

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