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Callous Handling of Refugees and Migrants by India

by Ravi Hemadri, 22 November 2010

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Mainstream, November 20, 2010

The recent case of deportation of 47 suspected Bangladeshis from Ahmedabad and the questions the Gujarat High Court asked the State Govern-ment to answer shows the continuing ambiguity in the country with regard to the rights of refugees and transnational migrants. Last year the Gujarat Police arrested 75 persons suspected to be Bangladeshi migrants and deported 47 of them in two batches in November 2009 and January 2010. In a petition filed by the Jansan-gharsh Morcha it has been alleged that the Gujarat Police did not follow proper guidelines for deportation.1

Deportation of persons suspected to be Bangladeshi migrants is nothing new. In 2008, immediately after the bomb blasts in Jaipur, the Rajasthan Government arrested Muslims and threatened them with deportation to Bangladesh. A number of them have been regularly deported from the State, particularly from Jaipur and its Sufi pilgrim centre, Ajmer. Similarly Bangladeshis are deported from Delhi from time to time. In 2008 the Delhi Police claimed they had deported 30,000 migrants since 2003.2

The issue of trans-border migrants from Bangladesh has been on the boil for several years now in Assam. Though migration of Bangladeshi peasants and workers in search of cultivable land and employment has a long history, the issue of ‘illegal’ foreigners blew up in Assam in a major way in 1974 when the All Assam Students Union launched a campaign to oust the illegal migrants.

Violence marred this political campaign that engulfed the whole of Assam for almost a decade. In one of the worst incidents, more than two thousand persons, who had migrated to India during the Bangladesh war, were killed in Nellie, Assam. As a part of the Assam Accord, 1984, certain agreements between the Central Govern-ment and the agitating parties in Assam were struck to detect the foreigners, delete their names from voters’ list and deport them according to the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983. The Act was a protection against arbitrary arrest and deportation by the State Police. However, it was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 2005, thus reverting to giving the executive full powers, under the Foreigners’ Regulation Act, 1946, to deport anyone who is considered an illegal foreigner without going through the judicial process.

The campaign of the AASU in Assam to oust the suspected foreigners found an echo in neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh where the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union gave an ultimatum in 1994 to the Chakma and Hajong refugees to be evicted. They were the indigenous tribal people ousted from Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) from 1964 onwards owing to the construction of the Kaptai dam and religious discrimination in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.3 After having accepted them for settlement the Government of India decided to send them to the Tirap subdivision of Arunachal Pradesh (then the North-East Frontier Agency). These families and their descendants were eligible for citizen-ship of India according to the Indian Citizenship Act, 1955. In 1996 the Supreme Court directed the State Government to register their names and send them for approval of citizenship to the Central Government. However, on account of the opposition of the State Government and several civil society groups the Chakma and Hajong families who migrated to India and their descendants continue to remain stateless persons to this day.

The other major trans-border migrant community in India’s North-East is that of the Burmese (Myanmarese) who have been fleeing to the Indian side since 1988 when there was a major crackdown on the pro-democracy activists by the military junta in that country. Since the 1990s and very recently from 2007 onwards there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of refugees from Burma entering into India. There are many factors that led to this jump in numbers. According to the World Refugee Survey, there are an estimated 100,000 Burmese, mostly belonging to the Chin ethnicity, in the State of Mizoram.4 An overwhelming majority of these are suspected to be economic migrants and stay in Mizoram as undocumented trans-border migrants. They get protection from the UNHCR only when they came to Delhi where they face a different set of problems than what they face in the North-Estern States. Apart from the harsh economic conditions of life as poor migrants they also have to contend with the local community in Delhi. A small minority of them is accepted by some of the Western countries for resettlement. In Mizoram several are deported regularly under pressure from Mizo organisations campaigning for eviction of the Burmese migrants.5

THE Government of India has treated different refugee and migrant groups differently. Tibetan and Sri Lankan Tamils are recognised as refugees by India directly while the cases of Burmese, Afghans, Iranians, Somalis are determined by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). India, being a non-signatory to the Refugee Convention and not having any policy/law of its own, creates conditions for this arbitrariness. Additionally it makes the existence of the UNHCR tenuous. The agency is not allowed to document and protect refugees in the North-Eastern States, nor is it permitted to entertain claims of any Bangladeshi or even a Sri Lankan.
The numbers of Bangladeshi migrants has been a contentious issue. The then Union Home Minister, L.K. Advani, put out in 2002 an astronomical number of 20 million6 in the whole of India. Before the NDA Government the Union Home Minister of the UF Government, Indrajit Gupta, had claimed in Parliament in 1997 that there were four million of them in Assam and 10 million7 in the rest of India.

Suspected Bangladeshis are treated in the most inhuman way. The Citizens’ Campaign for Preserving Democracy documented cases of Bengali-speaking Muslims arrested and detained in Delhi during 2004. According to the study done by them, suspected Bangladeshis are arrested by the police and the verification of their status as illegal foreigners is done by the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) who mostly disregard any documentary evidence of Indian citizenship the accused may have. Many are not even physically produced before the FRRO but pronounced illegal and served with ‘Leave India’ notices. Thereafter they are transported to the India-Bangladesh border and handed over to the Border Security Force (BSF) who push them across the borders. The accused are warned that they will be shot as infiltrators at the border if they refused to enter Bangladeshi territory.8

In a situation where the Bangladeshi trans-border migrants are seen as a security threat such a confusion over a proper estimate of them living in India can be expected. India has more than a 4000 km-long border with Bangladesh. Migration from that region to other parts of the country since the British time is a well-recognised fact. Large parts of this border, despite being fenced since the last few years, have not been able to prevent the migration of workers seeking employment in India.

India also has a long border of 1643 kms with Burma. The migration is particularly massive along the Mizoram (India)-Chinland (Burma) border and to some extent along the international border in the State of Manipur.

A slew of international human rights standards such as the Convention against Torture and other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), 1984, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), 1965 and others to which India is a party and important provisions of the Indian Constitution go against the arbitrary and harsh expulsion of the suspected foreigners. Provisions of the Indian Constitution such as Article 14 (Right to Equality) and Articles 21, 22 (Right to Life, Liberty and due process) also go against the arbitrary actions against foreigners. Though generally being very tolerant of refugees and trans-border migrants, India’s treatment of them in recent years shows extreme callousness with regard to their rights and dignity.

As for Bangladesh, the country exists in a precarious condition where a major part of it is submerged under water for a good part of the year. The problems of migration from that country into India need to be looked at from a holistic perspective. As far as deportation is concerned, there is a need for observing international standards that apply to such trans-border economic migrants. There is a need for India to come up with a law to regulate the stay of refugees in the country and to establish a due process to deal with economic migrants.


1. 1399692

2. 312242

3. Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhary ‘A Diaspora is made….’ in Living on the Edge by Subir Bhaumik (ed.), (SAFHR, Kathmandu,1997).

4., ANNUALREPORT, CHN,4562d8cf2,4a40d2a75d,0.html




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The author is a Delhi-based social activist; he can be contacted at e-mail: ravihemadri at