Disturbing visuals of Afghan and foreign nationals fleeing Afghanistan hours after the Taliban took control of the government on Sunday have raised concerns about a burgeoning refugee crisis.
TOLONews, an Afghan-based news channel reported on eyewitness accounts of shots fired at crowds seeking to board the military aircraft at Kabul airport. In light of the chaos that broke out at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Air India on Monday cancelled its last flight out of Kabul leaving many Indians stranded there.
The developments thus raise questions on what happens if Afghan refugees escaping the conflict come to India. Will India accept them? What is India's refugee policy?
"The human toll of spiralling hostilities is immense. The United Nations Assistance Mission has warned that without a significant de-escalation in violence, Afghanistan is on course to witness the highest ever number of documented civilian casualties in a single year since the UN's records began," the United National High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Shabia Mantoo said briefing the media on August 13.
"Nearly 400,000 were forced from their homes since the beginning of the year, joining 2.9 million Afghans already internally displaced across the country at the end of 2020," Mantoo added.
"The American decision has been made. And the nightmare Afghans feared is unfolding before our eyes. We cannot abandon a people that have searched for forty years for peace. Afghan women must not be made to languish again behind locked doors & pulled curtains. #PrayforAfghanistan," Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini tweeted.
The American decision has been made. And the nightmare Afghans feared is unfolding before our eyes. We cannot abandon a people that have searched forty years for peace. Afghan women must not be made to languish again behind locked doors & pulled curtains. #PrayforAfghanistan— Khaled Hosseini (@khaledhosseini) August 14, 2021
The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, ratified by 148 countries, protects refugees. At the time, there were an estimated one million refugees. Today the figure has crossed 20.7 million. Of these, 68% of the refugees originate from five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar, with 86% of them being hosted by developing countries.
What is India's refugee policy?
Since India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its Protocols, it does not have a policy or a law to protect refugees. These refugees are termed as foreign nationals.
All foreigners, refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons are governed by the provisions contained in the Foreigners Act 1946, the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939, the Passport (Entry to India) Act 1920 and the Citizenship Act, 1955.
"Foreign nationals who enter into the country without valid travel documents or whose travel documents expire during their stay in India are treated as illegal immigrants and are dealt according to the existing legal provisions," Minister of State (Home) Nityanand Rai said in a reply to a question in the Lok Sabha.
Foreign nationals granted refuge by the Indian government are granted Long Term Visas or Resident Permits which will be periodically reviewed. "The Home Ministry on December 29, 2011 issued internal guidelines that govern foreign nationals who declare themselves as refugees. Provisions in these guidelines have not been made public," advocate Fazal Abdali said. "The Home Ministry permits these foreign nationals with LTVs to take up any employment in the private sector or to undertake studies in any academic institution," Abdali, who is National Director, Refugee Rights Initiative, Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) told BOOM.
According to BS Chimni, a refugee law expert, the status of refugees in India is one of "strategic ambiguity". Ravi Nair, Executive Director of South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre says India's policies on refugees changes in accordance with its geopolitical stand at the time."
While the Indian government welcomed Sri Lankan Tamil refugees and the Tibetans, it has taken a hostile stand against the Rohingyas escaping persecution in Myanmar.
Are there any refugees in India?
India does not maintain a record of the number of refugees in India.
Though, according to the UNHCR as of January 2020, India is home to at least 2.44 lakh refugees and asylum seekers. Of these, 2,03,235 refugees are from Sri Lanka and Tibet, while 40,859 refugees and asylum seekers belong to other nationalities.
The Indian Labour Organisation (ILO) says there are at least 500,000 Nepali immigrants in India. And 2017 data suggests, there are at least 40,000 Rohingya Muslims in India, of which at least 16,500 have been registered with the United Nations.
Are there Afghan refugees in India?
Yes. There are many Afghan refugees who have settled in India. India had allowed a fair number of refugees after the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time in 2000. These Afghans were mainly Hazaras, the Tajiks and a few Pashtun —all anti-Taliban, Ravi Nair told BOOM.
"The first wave of Afghan refugees came to India in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion in late 1979. Most of them were middle class with professional qualifications. All of them left for resettlement in the West after a few years here," Nair added.
"India has helped train and supplied arms to the anti-Taliban supporters. We also have a significant non-military stake in Afghanistan by way of construction of roads, dams and medical treatment," he said. "Because of our Afghan connection, it is possible that India may continue its two-decade policy and allow a small number of refugees to seek shelter here," Nair said.
What is the Citizenship Amendment Act and how is it connected to Afghanistan?
Home Minister Amit Shah had cited religious persecution of religious minorities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan while arguing in favour of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019. The CAA, a contentious piece of legislation that has seen opposition for its communal overtones, is supposed to facilitate easier access to Indian citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists (minority communities) of Indian ethnic origin from the three aforementioned countries. Process for entry in India and processing their early citizenship application will be in accordance with the Rules which have not yet been notified.
However, even though the act was passed in December 2019, the Centre has sought an extension of time till January 9, 2022, to notify the rules for the same.
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