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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 28, July 8, 2023

Need to Enhance Refugee Integration in India | Dr Beena

Friday 7 July 2023


by Dr. Beena


India’s rich history has seen it become a refuge for countless individuals seeking safety and shelter from conflict and persecution. As a nation that has traditionally welcomed refugees, India hosts a diverse range of refugee communities, each with unique socio-cultural backgrounds and integration challenges. However, the current landscape of refugee integration in India is marred by the absence of a robust and comprehensive refugee policy, leading to numerous issues and concerns for these displaced populations. This study delves into the socio-cultural dynamics of refugee communities in India and shed light on the obstacles they face due to the lack of a proper refugee policy. By examining the current status of refugees in India, we seek to identify the major challenges hindering their integration and explore potential solutions to enhance their inclusion and well-being.

India has long provided protection and assistance to millions of refugees. Notably, the partition in 1947 led to the displacement of 14 million individuals, resulting in a group known as ’partition refugees.’ According to 2023 UNHCR, there are 49,427 refugees and asylum-seekers holding UNHCR-issued documents as of April, with an increase of 12 since March 2023; and according to refugees registered and assisted by the Government of India, there are 92,072 refugees from Sri Lanka, 72,291 from Tibet, 29,361 from Myanmar, 15,053 from Afghanistan and 4,645 from other countries.

Tibetans began seeking refuge in India due to the political and social unrest in Tibet, particularly following the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959. The Tibetan people, led by their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, faced persecution and a loss of their cultural and religious freedoms under Chinese rule. In response to this oppression, thousands of Tibetans made the arduous journey across the Himalayas into India, seeking political asylum. Granting political asylum to Tibetans triggered the 1962 war with China. Since then, Tibetans have been acknowledged as refugees by the UNHCR and the Indian government. They have resettled across northern and northeastern Indian states, living harmoniously with local communities, and being seen as a peaceful community.

In 1971, there was significant influx occurred when Bangladesh (East Pakistan) refugees arrived, though they eventually returned with the creation of Bangladesh. The influx of millions of refugees into India during the conflict between the Pakistani army and Bangladeshi forces created a sudden population surge in the bordering states. The government of India faced significant challenges in providing for their needs. Unfortunately, this has led to violent clashes between local communities and Bangladeshi refugees, particularly in northeastern states like Assam, Tripura, and Manipur. The local communities and tribal groups claim that the continuous flow of refugees and illegal immigrants has altered the social dynamics of the region, making the locals a minority in their homeland. The Foreigners Tribunal Order, of 1964 came into existence to address the influx of migrants, particularly from Bangladesh, and to determine whether they are genuine Indian citizens or foreigners. However, the tribunals have faced criticism for alleged inconsistencies, procedural flaws, and the potential for wrongful exclusion of legitimate citizens. The issue remains a contentious one, with ongoing debates and concerns regarding human rights, discrimination, and the impact on marginalized communities in Assam.

Another, prominent refugee groups in India are the Sri Lankan Tamils, with the former seeking asylum since the ethnic conflict and biased policies by Sri Lankan government, started in 1983. Due to political instability in Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India face challenges in returning to their country. Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India have been granted asylum and receive support from the Indian government. They are provided with necessities, such as education, healthcare, and shelter. However, their status remains uncertain and there are ongoing challenges in their repatriation or resettlement. Some refugees opt for local assimilation, while others seek resettlement in a third country. The situation of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India continues to be closely monitored and efforts are made to address their needs and concerns.

The Rohingya community, which began its journey in 2007, is the most recent addition among the refugee communities in India. The Rohingya population in Myanmar faces a significant challenge as they are not recognized as citizens by the government. Myanmar has deliberately excluded the Rohingyas from its official list of ethnic groups, denying them citizenship rights. The argument for their exclusion revolves around the requirement for individuals to provide evidence of their presence or their parents’ presence in Burma before 1948, the year of independence, to be eligible for citizenship. This discriminatory treatment has fueled animosity among the Burmese population towards Rohingya Muslims. Furthermore, the political situation worsened when Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup on February 1, 2021, abruptly interrupting the country’s democratic transition. Since then, the conflict has forced nearly 700,000 people to flee their homes, further exacerbating the plight of the Rohingya community. Currently, there are 29,361 Rohingya refugees settled in India and India considers the Rohingya as illegal immigrants and a security risk, aligning with the Burmese government. As a non-signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, India argues that the principle of non-refoulment does not apply. Instead, India has urged Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya refugees.

The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 also led to the arrival of Afghan refugees. Since 1999, the Indian Government’s Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) has stopped renewing residence visas for Afghan refugees, leaving them in a state of uncertainty and fear of being considered illegal residents. The refugees are hesitant to travel due to concerns of extortion or deportation. However, India allows the UNHCR to provide essential services and support to Afghan refugees, including emergency aid, vocational training, legal advice, resettlement assistance, job placement, and basic amenities.

India has supported and aided numerous refugees since independence, but differing treatment raises concerns about its refugee policy and protection. Tibetans receive comprehensive rehabilitation, Sri Lankan Tamils are granted asylum with limited stay permissions, and there are disparities in the rations provided to Sri Lankan refugees, Chakmas, and dealing with Rohingyas refugees. This differential treatment calls into question India’s approach to refugees.

Knowing the fact that India has not signed the 1951 Geneva Convention or the 1967 Protocol. One reason for this is India’s concern about the Euro-centric definition of "refugee" in the Convention, which primarily addressed political and civil rights, rather than economic, social, and cultural rights and India cited its preference to address refugees as a group rather than on an individual level. Regional politics and international relations influence the country’s ad hoc refugee policy. Consequently, the Indian government recognizes and supports refugees such as Sri Lankan Tamils and Tibetans, while other groups like Afghans and Myanmar do not receive the same recognition.


India’s decision to not join the Refugee Convention of 1951 does not absolve it of its fundamental responsibility to protect refugees on humanitarian grounds. The current situation highlights the urgent need for a comprehensive refugee framework to address the lack of specific legal protection and a national refugee policy. Refugee communities remain vulnerable and face significant challenges in seeking protection and recognition without such measures. Establishing a unified refugee regime that provides equal protection to all refugees in India, regardless of their recognition status, would help eliminate discriminatory policies and ensure the well-being of all those in need.

* (Author: Dr. Beena is Maharishi Kanad Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Delhi School of Transnational Affairs, Institution of Eminence, University of Delhi)


[1] Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs (2023, May 28). Foreigners Division: Refugees.
[2] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2023, May 28). Refugees: Frequently Asked Questions.
[3] Indian Constitution, Article 21 (2023, May 28).
[4] United Nations General Assembly (2023, May 28). Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
[5] United Nations General Assembly (2023, May 28). Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
[6] International Organization for Migration (2023, May 28). Migration and Integration.
[7] Refugee Council of India (2023, May 28). Refugee Council of India: About Us.
[8] Ministry of Education, Government of India (2023, May 28). National Education Policy.
[11] India factsheet _ Global Focus Refugee Report 2023. pdf) (**Statistics about Myanmar, Afghanistan, and other countries Refugee and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR India-as of 30 November 2022) (*Statistics about Sri Lankan refugees and Tibetan are taken from Government of India, MHA Annual Report 2021-2022)

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