Thursday, January 09, 2020

India’s Approach to Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Mona Thakkar
Image source: Daily Mail


In the recent meeting between Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Haseena and Narendra Modi, both the leaders agreed on the need for greater efforts to facilitate the “safe return of Rohingya refugees”. This declaration came even after the UN fact-finding mission reaffirmed that the Tatmadaw has committed genocidal crimes and crimes against humanity and the conditions are not conducive for Rohingya’s safe return.

Bangladesh, which hosts around 750,000 refugees from Rakhine State, has been complaining about the overwhelming pressure on its resources, environment degradation due to the sprawling camps and Rohingya taking hold of the marginal jobs. It has also been blaming Myanmar for the failure of the recent attempt to repatriate Rohingya refugees, showing its frustration over the lack of resolution of the issue. Instead of backing Bangladesh on the repatriation deal, India has chosen to help by providing financial assistance to Rohingya in Bangladesh’s camps and shield Myanmar at the UN from international sanctions.

Unlike Bangladesh, the Modi government has paid lip service to the Myanmar’s brutal crackdown on Rohingya and has threatened to expel 40,000 Rohingya migrants, 16,000 registered with the UNHCR, who it says have illegally settled in the country. The government views them not as refugees fleeing a genocidal humanitarian crisis but as infiltrators or terrorists who pose a security threat to the nation and claim to eat up the limited resources available to its citizens. The government has translated this rhetoric into action by deporting the first batch of Rohingya in October and later in January on the guarantee given to the Supreme Court that Myanmar recognises them as citizens. Unease further mounted among Rohingya when the government instructed the states to take prompt actions to identify illegal migrants by taking their biometric details and asking them to fill national reverification forms. 

India, though not a signatory to the UN Refugee convention of 1951, has openly welcomed millions of refugees from Bangladesh during the 1971 War, Buddhist refugees from Tibet and Tamil refugees during the Civil War in Sri Lanka in 1983. In defence of deporting Rohingya, India has said it will not adhere to the principle of non-refoulement as it has not ratified the UN refugee treaty of 1951. Non-refoulement prohibits forced repatriation of a person to his country of origin where he may face persecution. But as India is a party to the UN Convention against Torture and Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is obliged to non-refoulement. Therefore, India’s deportation of Rohingya refugees becomes a violation of the international law.

Indian Parliament has recently passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, that seeks to grant citizenship to Jain, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Parsi and Christian migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, who have been living in India for the past six years, even if they do not have valid documents. It also implies that the threat the government faces is only from the undocumented Muslim refugees. The Bill goes against the social fabric of the Constitution of India and helps the BJP and its hard-line Hindu organisation RSS to flex their muscles of majoritarian nationalism. The recent hate rhetoric against Rohingya has forced many to flee and go to Bangladesh, raising the prospect of skirmishes between India and Bangladesh as the latter is already finding it difficult to deal with the crisis.

Further, India’s and even China’s backing to Myanmar on the Rohingya crisis stems from its geopolitical pursuits and India’s Look East policy. India and China have huge projects in Rakhine state of Myanmar—the Indian-funded Kaladan Multi Modal project linking its remote north east through sea, river and land; and China’s Kyaukpyu port project which is the terminal for the oil gas pipeline to its inland western province. Moreover, the threat of terrorism from ARSA spilling over to other parts of Rakhine worries India. Any criticism of Myanmar’s leadership will throw these strategic projects into turmoil and bolster China’s influence in India’s gateway to South East Asia.

Though realpolitik has to be pursued to deal with war, conflict, occupation and ethnic sectarian tensions, it does not have to be unethical, inhumane and unjust. The crises in Yemen, Syria and Myanmar reflect that the international community follows realpolitik at the expense of human rights because the costs outweigh the benefits. This may result in people, who suffer from conflict, losing faith in the international system.

Mona Thakkar is Research Intern at CPPR. Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

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