India has had a stellar history in welcoming refugees and sheltering them. Independent India saw us handling an unprecedented refugee crisis of 1947. In fact, as a child of 1947 refugees, I can’t but applaud that part of our nation-building history. India had hosted Tibetan refugees from the 1960s and in the 1970s we welcomed refugees from western Africa, later from Afghanistan and then from Sri Lanka. Most recently, we are hosting Rohingya refugees from Myanmar emerging from the persecution against their community from May 2015 and refugees fleeing from the February 2021 crisis in Myanmar.
India’s example holds true for much of the global south. As UNHCR data notes, more than 86% of refugees were hosted by developing countries, with more than 73% by the neighbouring countries. In general, societies in the south have welcomed refugees as equal members of society. Countries of the North on the other hand have never embraced refugees in the same spirit of solidarity and responsibility, though it can be argued they carry much of the responsibility of the global refugee crisis. They need to be called out for that.
ActionAid Association has been at the forefront of responding to the emergency needs of forcibly displaced communities for over four decades now. ActionAid Association prioritises the needs of women and children and builds the resilience of marginalised populations. We have supported displaced minorities from Pakistan, living in Rajasthan, and internally displaced persons from Chhattisgarh settled in Andhra Pradesh. In partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees India, we continue to extend support to people from the Rohingya community settled in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Working in collaboration with social organisations, we have been offering humanitarian assistance to refugees from strife-ridden Myanmar too.
We need to recognise that in this century there has been a reversal in the perception of refugees. World Refugee Council calls it “a shortfall of humanity and empathy”. With growing xenophobic tendencies, stronger border controls, the rise of nativistic “sons of the soil” movements, as well as rising economic inequities which stoke fears of “risk from refugees”, host communities have become insecure and elected governments voice these insecurities, without resolving them; this comes at a time when the need is for addressing the refugee crisis in the framework of leaving no one behind.
With some exceptions, in general, there is a fast-growing antipathy towards refugees. The conscience of the world was struck by the tragic visuals of drowning refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea and of Rohingyas and other Myanmarese ethnic groups fleeing atrocities but governments have not been so easily moved. Rescuing drowning migrants became a crime in Italy; sheltering refugees from Myanmar a matter of political debate. Spectres of “dangers and threats” posed by refugees basis race, religion and economic competition that is propelled by fundamentalist actions of vested interest groups from both refugee and host communities groups, are raised to stoke xenophobia.
Let’s understand that refugees or for that matter any other groups, could become a threat to national sovereignty, only when the state has retreated from its welfare and caring orientation. To any government whose main focus is the increased physical, social, economic, and mental well-being of its people, care for people seeking refuge poses no threat. This has been demonstrated in ample measure by our collective past of accepting and integrating refugees.
Refugees need safety during travel when fleeing oppression, hunger or fear. They need safety, social protection, and care in the spaces they flee to without discrimination, and a right to return to their native lands, should they so desire. Their children need access to continued education, and families need non-discriminatory access to healthcare, education, and all public services. Women need protection against violence and discrimination. Enabling conditions to earn livelihoods are critical, even when there is no right to employment; else how can their families survive.
The lesson for us is not to mirror the countries that have regressive colonial attitudes to refugees and migrants. India should remain true to its warm non-discriminatory history of welcoming refugees. To the global community, that would be a message and an action demonstrating principled leadership —one that is morally, socially, politically and strategically defensible, and inspirational for others to follow.
Let us, however, remember that stellar pasts don’t automatically lead to glorious futures. Futures need active construction with humane people-centred politics and policies, set in a frame of a caring welfare state. Existing treaties and protocols need to be signed up to and newer societal imageries of futures based on solidarities, co-existence, and commons of humankind are needed, as are sensitive refugee policies and actions.
Sandeep Chachra is Executive Director of ActionAid Association and Joseph Mathai is Senior Manager – Communications of ActionAid Association. The views expressed are personal.