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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

World Refugee Day: Tibetan refugees among human influxes that shaped India

June 20, 2016

Indian Express, June 20, 2016 - World Refugee Day, observed every year on June 20, has a special significance this time round. With the Islamic State posing itself as one of the biggest political threats in global history, the repercussions of forced migration from the Middle East are being felt all over the world.

Every nation has been witness to a number of major and minor refugee crises in history and still continues to face them, India being no exception. The birth of the country itself occurred in the midst one of the biggest such crises the world has seen.

However, despite being host to a large number of refugees, India is not signatory to either the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention nor its 1967 Protocol. The convention is signed by 144 countries out of 190 countries around the globe and works for protection of rights of the displaced and ‘defining legal obligations of the states to protect them’.

In an effort to create awareness about the daily struggles and politics that refugees in India have had to undergo over the years since the country’s independence, looks into five instances of mass refugee influx in the history of India.

Partition of India and the ‘bloodied’ human displacement

The birth of independent India in 1947 was accompanied by one of the most violent instances of migration in human history. The partition of the country was the direct result of the British withdrawing and coincided with communal riots and bloodshed of the kinds never before seen in the country. Approximately one million people died in the riots and local level fighting. Historian Gyanendra Pandey had remarked that the partition for many in North India was equivalent in its trauma and impact to the First World War in Britain, or the Second World War for Japan.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that approximately 14 million people were displaced during partition as Hindus and Sikhs moved to India and Muslims moved to Pakistan. Several more were displaced in smaller groups over the course of the next few years. By the middle of 1948, about one million people entered West Bengal and by the end of 1950, the number increased threefold. About 28.4 per cent of Delhi was made up of refugees in 1947 and the numbers increased manifold in the next couple of years.


The huge influx of refugees into the country was followed by disturbances and conflicts occurring at an unprecedented rate between locals and refugees, as the newly formed government struggled to accommodate the excess incoming population. Conflicts commonly centred around tussles for land and jobs leading to the government taking desperate measures of settling refugees in abandoned and uninhabitable tracts of land.

For instance, the West Bengal government dispersed a large number of destitute refugee population to the dried up village of Jirat. Government reports elucidate upon the miserable conditions in which refugees camped in Jirat, with hardly any hope of finding decent jobs. Stories of starvation, poor housing and epidemics were a feature in any of the refugee camps.

In Cooper’s camp lying 700 kms north of Calcutta, partition refugee are still struggling to gain recognition as Indian nationals. A number of Bengali refugees had to be resettled outside Bengal. Between 1951 and 61, about 2,576 refugee families settled in the islands of Betapur and Neil in the Middle Andamans.

In the decades following the partition, efforts have been made by social scientists to record the horrid stories of migration that have remained steeped into the memories and the very identity of the partition refugees and their succeeding generations. In June 2015, the Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust embarked upon the project of a Partition museum which would serve as a repository of images, oral and written testimonies, books and other materials commemorating one of the bloodiest moments of Indian history.

Occupation of Tibet: The case of fleeing refugees to India

One of the biggest and most conveniently ignored occupation and migrant crisis of South Asia began with annexation of Tibet by China in in late 1940s and early 1950s. The impact was such that thousands of Tibetans had to flee to save themselves from resulting violence. Many, including His Holiness Dalai Lama traversed through the tough terrains of Himalayas for weeks during 1959-60 and reached India where they were granted asylum by the then government headed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

According to UNHCR, the influx of Tibetan refugees has not stopped since the Chinese side of border was sealed in 1960. It states that the total number of Tibetans living in India went up to a massive 100,000 in 1980s.

As per Journalist and researcher Maya Moynihan’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing of Mat, 1997, the opening up of Tibetan borders for trade and tourism in 1980s led to a second exodus which witnessed exile population in India going up by a massive 14 per cent in just 10 years.

With a history of crisis stretching to more than six decades and repression, the Tibetan community struggles to conserve and protect its cultural values. The young generation has only been able to learn about their cultural values through surviving elders who lived in once-free Tibet before 1940. The UNHCR report states there are 85 Tibetan schools across India with 25,000 students who study there with an aim to understand and preserve their culture for future.

This modern-day colonisation has also seen some of the most horrific protests in form of  self-immolation. Since February 2009, according to Central Tibetan Administration, 144 self-immolations took place in Tibet out of which 125 died. The first time such an incident was reported in India was in April 1998 in Delhi. Since then, at least seven Tibetans in exile, including four from India, have chosen the same way, the most recent of them being a 16-year-old school boy Dorjee Tsering of Dehradun.

The struggle to find a cultural identity: Bangladeshi refugees since 1970

The newly created state of Pakistan was struck with political problems right from its very inception. The country that was physically divided between the west and east wing, had from the very beginning faced the problem of inadequate integration. Politically as well as economically, the West dominated the East, leading to the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971. The brutal crackdown by the Pakistani Army upon the supporters of the independence of Bangladesh led to a large scale refugee exodus from East Pakistan to India.

An estimated 10 million people moved into India from East Pakistan between April and December 1971. Majority of them concentrated in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura.

The penetration of refugees in such large numbers was a cause of great concern to the Indian government. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had promised complete support to the refugees at that time but made it clear that they would not be allowed to settle in India permanently.

International support had to be sought by the Indian government in order to settle the refugees. The UNHCR was entrusted with the task of arranging relief supplies to India. By April 1971, Indian Ministry of Labour and Rehabilitation decided to establish fifty camps, each with the capacity of 50,000 refugees. By mid May, Indira Gandhi noted that 330 camps had been established.

However, health problems grew in abundance in these camps. Children were especially affected with malnourishment.

With the war coming to an end, the Indian government announced that refugees would have to evacuate the camps and return to their home country. By January 1972, approximately six million refugees left the country, making it the largest repatriation operation in world history.

However, approximately 1.5 million continued to stay on in the country. Since the Bangladesh war, refugees have been infiltrating into the country unabated. The inflow of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants into Assam has over the decades gained prominence in political debate, with the BJP promising to put rigorous checks on them in the recent Assembly elections of May 2016.

Ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas in Myanmar

The conflict between Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and radical Rakhine Buddhists is not a new phenomenon. There had been minor clashes between the communities throughout,but the problem escalated after 1982 when the country passed a new citizenship law that de-recognised the Rohingyas as one of the national races and denied them citizenship.

Deadly riots broke out in October 2012 in Myanmar which were supported by the Burmese officials and local authorities. According to a Human Rights Watch report, the pogrom led to displacement of more than 1,25,000 Rohingyas.

The UN calls Rohingyas the most persecuted minority group in the world. The community members are practically not citizens of any country around the world including Myanmar. Most of those who flee have to make a hazardous journey through sea and take asylum in neighbouring countries.

A UNHCR report states that there are around 5,500 registered Rohingya refugees spread across India living in makeshift camps in precarious conditions without proper sanitation, food and education. However, the problem is even bigger because hundreds of them are entering illegally into West Bengal through North-East and Bangladesh which poses a serious security threat. As per Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group’s report, around thousand such refugees were prosecuted by state government under the 1946 Foreigners Act and sent to correctional homes.

Those living in India struggle because of language barriers, lack of jobs and basic amenities. The UNHCR observes that majority of children staying in camps work to support their families instead of getting a proper education. Most of them are forced to live in poverty battling diseases and malnutrition.

Ethnic conflicts and forced migration of Sri Lankan Tamils

Since the independence of Sri Lanka in 1948, the island has been marred with ethnic conflicts between the Sinhalese and the Tamilians living in the north and east of the country. The resulting civil war of 1983 led to the forced exodus of nearly 700,000 Sri Lankans, especially Tamilians in the course of the next 20 years. A large percentage of them acquired asylum in India.

According to the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), approximately 1,20,000 refugees live in Tamil Nadu camps.Sri Lankan refugees entered India in four phases. The first phase was soon after the civil war of 1983. An estimated 1.34 lakh Sri Lankan Tamils arrived in India between 1983 and 1987. In June 1990, the war flared up again and 1,22,000 Tamils were forced to migrate to India. With the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, a wave of mass repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees took place. Since then, even though refugees have arrived in the country, they have been treated with much suspicion. A third and fourth phase of mass migration into the country took place in 1995 and then in 2013.

A majority of the Sri Lankan refugees live in camps in Tamil Nadu. According to the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), approximately 1,20,000 refugees live in Tamil Nadu camps. A number of them live in special camps. These are camps that have been secluded after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Inmates of these camps live under constant surveillance.

The biggest problem faced by the Sri Lankan refugees in India is the constant suspicion meted out to them. There are restrictions placed on their freedom of movement and any attempt at asserting their rights is viewed with misgivings. Majority of these camps live on low rations and lack of basic health care facilities.

While a number of other countries have accepted Sri Lankan refugees with basic rights, In India the status of the refugee remains undefined.

There are other communities too who have seeked out for refuge in India, which includes Afghans, Somalia and Iraq. In the last couple of years, India has been host to a small group of Syrian refugees who wished to avoid the strains of going to overcrowded camps in neighbouring countries or Europe.

As of August 2015, 39 Syrian refugees and 20 asylum seekers have been registered by the UNHCR in India. However, the geographical distance between the two countries has made it difficult for more number of Syrians to take refuge in India.

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