Bound by no international law for refugee welfare, the South Asian country has refused for decades to be a party to one in light of its "porous border".

As Sri Lanka faces its worst-ever economic crisis, several families have fled the island to India’s south, facing an uncertain future.

Last week, at least 16 Sri Lankans, including seven children and a four-month-old infant, undertook the journey on boats from the country’s south Jaffna and Kokkupadaiyan. 

They reached the shores of Tamil Nadu where officers of the Indian Coast Guard rescued them.

According to the refugees, the dire economic situation forced them to flee Sri Lanka where they were unable to feed their families.

However, India does not have domestic legislation to protect refugees and asylum seekers, nor has it accepted related international treaties, leaving many of those Sri Lankan refugees vulnerable. 

Local media reported saying some Sri Lankan refugees, who arrived last week, were lodged in the Puzhal Central Prison, a detention complex located in Tamil Nadu state’s capital Chennai, while women and children were placed in Mandapam Refugee camp for Sri Lankan refugees, 700 km from Chennai.

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Since the beginning of March, the Sri Lankan rupee has fallen by almost 45 percent against the US dollar and its foreign exchange reserves have fallen 70 percent in the past two years to about $2.31 billion, leaving Sri Lankans struggling to pay for essential imports, including food and fuel.

Despite a heavy flow of refugees from neighbouring countries for years, India is one of the few countries in the world that is not a party to the United Nations Refugee Convention (1951) or its Protocol (1967). 

The main reason is the “porous nature of borders in South Asia”.

“The frequent movement of individuals can cause strain on local infrastructure, resources, and security, which some argue would be exacerbated by adopting a convention explicitly recognizing the rights of displaced populations,” Arunav Kaul, a human rights lawyer said in his piece explaining the need of India’s refugee law.

“Another reason often provided is that India already takes measures to help and protect refugees and asylum seekers. Hence, many believe that since India is already fulfilling its duty, there doesn’t arise a need to sign the Convention.”

India’s Foreigners Act tackles the issues of refugees in India; however, under this act, India holds all rights to deport any foreign citizen at any time to their home country at its discretion. 

In addition, the Act does not distinguish between a foreigner who enters the Indian borders voluntarily and refugees, who are forced to take shelter in India, Aarohi Bhalla, a lawyer based in New Delhi said in her report on the need for refugee law in India.

“The Indian legal framework does not shed any light on the topic of asylum and it does not consider refugees as a class but a single individual,” she said. 

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“Indian legal framework essentially considers illegal immigrants and refugees under the same category, and as such refugees are not provided with any special political or legal shed.”

India has in the past received refugees from various countries including Afghanistan and Myanmar. 

As of January 2020, there are nearly 200,000 refugees in India, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 

Most of these refugees are from Tibet, followed by Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Afghanistan. 

Currently, 60,000 refugees are living in 107 camps across Tamil Nadu since the civil war in the early 1980s, when India shouldered the burden of refugees from Sri Lanka.

In addition, Bhalla said that the Indian law does not consider the human rights paradigm of refugees and there are no provisions under the existing laws that guarantee the security of lives of the refugees, leaving many in limbo. 

Source: TRT World