Last Updated: Friday, 16 February 2018, 15:01 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - India

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 20 June 2001
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - India , 20 June 2001, available at: [accessed 18 February 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

At the end of 2000, more than 290,000 refugees were living in India, including 110,000 from Tibet (China), 110,000 from Sri Lanka, 42,000 from Burma, 15,000 from Bhutan, 13,000 from Afghanistan, and more than 300 from other countries. Another 40,000 Afghans were living in India in refugee-like conditions.

Some 507,000 people were internally displaced in India because of political violence, including some 350,000 Kashmiris and more than 157,000 others in Northeast India.

India is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and does not have national legislation regarding refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is present in India, but the government permits it access only to refugees living in urban centers, primarily Afghans. India extends a refugee-like status to some refugee groups but regards others as economic migrants. However, in recent years, a number of Indian court rulings have advanced the protection of refugees whom the government had considered to be economic migrants.

Refugees from Sri Lanka

The 17-year conflict between Sri Lanka's Sinhalese, Buddhist majority and Tamil, Hindu minority has led more than 110,000 Sri Lankan Tamils to flee to India. According to UNHCR, nearly 1,620 Tamils fled to India during 2000 by sea from the western coastal Mannar Region.

Some 64,743 of the refugees live in 131 state-run camps in Tamil Nadu State. Many of the refugee camps are well maintained, but others are badly neglected. Inadequate sanitation and insufficient clean drinking water are among the main problems. The Indian authorities give camp residents cash grants and provide them some non-food items at subsidized rates. They permit the refugees to work outside the camps, but restrict their movement, making it difficult for them to keep jobs.

The Indian authorities place in "special camps" those they suspect to be associated with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). According to the U.S. State Department, "Human rights groups allege that inmates of the special camps are subjected to physical abuse." Estimates of the number of refugees living outside the camps with relatives or on their own vary widely. The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) believes their number to be about 45,000, including some of those who arrived in 2000.

Refugees from Tibet

Tibetan refugees, led by their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, first fled to India in 1959, after China annexed Tibet. India permits the Tibetans to maintain their own administration, based in the northern Indian city of Dharamsala, which in effect functions as a Tibetan government-in-exile.

The number of Tibetan refugees in India fluctuates because of deaths, births, and the arrival of an additional 2,000 to 3,000 refugees from Tibet each year. Also, an unknown number of Tibetans return to Tibet each year after completing pilgrimages or studies. According to UNHCR, 2,319 Tibetan refugees arrived in India in 2000, having fled over the Himalaya Mountains to Nepal. UNHCR assisted them in their journey from Nepal to India.

Many Tibetans in India are self-sufficient, but some, including elderly persons, female-headed families, and recent arrivals, struggle. The Indian authorities continue to permit Tibetan refugees to enter, although they have not granted legal residence to most of those who have arrived in recent years.

In 2000, the Indian government granted asylum to Ugyen Thinley Dorje, the seventeenth Karmapa Lama. The Karmapa Lama is the third most powerful figure in Tibetan Buddhism. He first fled to India in December 1999. India's action caused some friction between China and India and led to a series of official talks between the two governments to discuss Tibetan refugees in India.

Refugees from Burma

More than 40,000 ethnic Chin and 1,000 ethnic Naga refugees from Burma were living in Northeast India. The Chin, who are largely Christian, are among the many ethnic minorities who have suffered discrimination and persecution under the present Burmese regime. UNHCR has said that the Chin in Mizoram might qualify as refugees, but India considers them illegal immigrants and does not permit UNHCR access to them.

More than 1,000 ethnic Nagas fled from Burma into India's Nagaland State in August 1999. The Nagas, who are also Christian, reportedly fled from Burma's Sagaing Division because of religious persecution and raids on their villages by the Burmese military.

Local news sources and refugee organizations claim that more than 1,000 ethnic Chin Burmese are in prisons in Mizoram State awaiting deportation to Burma, where they could face persecution. In August, the Indian government deported some 200 Burmese, mostly Chin, to Burma. USCR, Human Rights Watch, and other organizations appealed to Indian authorities to halt the deportations. USCR said that such deportations "put the refugees' lives at risk."

Another 779 Burmese whom UNHCR recognized as refugees lived in New Delhi. These included both Burmese political dissidents and ethnic Chin who made the long and costly journey from Mizoram to New Delhi to seek UNHCR protection. In addition to these, about 150 Burmese families were living in New Delhi. UNHCR has denied the refugee status applications of some and has yet to make a determination on others. UNHCR did not assist these families.

Refugees from Bhutan

An estimated 15,000 Lhotsampa, ethnic Nepalese refugees from Bhutan, live in India. Most are located in West Bengal and Assam states. Under the terms of the Indo-Bhutanese friendship treaty of 1950, India allows Bhutanese to live and work freely in India. Therefore, the Indian government does not acknowledge the Bhutanese as refugees, assist them, or require them to live in camps. However, because the Bhutanese in India fled Bhutan and remained outside their country for the same reasons as Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, USCR considers them to be refugees.

Urban Refugees

Some 13,700 UNHCR-recognized refugees lived in urban centers in India, mostly in New Delhi, at the end of 2000. A large majority, some 12,760, were from Afghanistan. Smaller numbers came from Burma (779), Iran (114), and Somalia (84). UNHCR reported that it newly recognized 391 persons as mandate refugees during 2000, including 154 Afghans, 172 Burmese, and 23 Sudanese. According to Indian refugee advocates, more than 40,000 other Afghans may be living in India in refugee-like circumstances.

UNHCR normally provides urban refugees cash assistance for some period of time after approving their refugee status. In 1995, UNHCR terminated ongoing assistance to most of the urban refugees, offering instead one-time "self-sufficiency" grants. Indian advocacy groups and the refugees themselves sharply criticized these grants, saying that few refugees were able to establish viable businesses with the small grants. As a result, they say, many refugees are destitute. In August 2000, UNHCR withheld subsistence allowances from current recipients because of financial constraints. That caused many refugees, who are dependent on these grants, to miss rent and school payments.

UNHCR continued to provide medical assistance, education, and other social services to the refugees through local nongovernmental organizations.

Internal Displacement in Northeast India

An estimated 157,000 persons of various ethnicities were displaced in several states in Northeast India, a geographically and politically isolated area of India that is home to many "tribal" groups. Once sparsely populated, in recent decades Northeast India's population swelled with the arrival of millions of ethnic Bengali Hindus and Muslims from Bangladesh and India's West Bengal State.

Population growth led to competition for land and jobs, and tension between ethnic minority groups and migrants and among the ethnic groups themselves. Those tensions resulted in the rise of ethnic and politically based insurgencies that have battled each other and attacked civilian populations belonging to rival ethnic groups. Such attacks have caused widespread displacement. Clashes between the Indian armed forces and insurgents have also contributed to the significant violence in the region.

Throughout the Northeast, conditions for the displaced are poor. Violence and displacement continue in some areas, and no intergovernmental or international organizations are present. Many of the displaced live in public buildings and makeshift shelters. Most receive little medical care and have no access to formal education. Many receive food aid, but it often arrives sporadically and is insufficient.

The displaced population includes an estimated 87,000 ethnic Santhals in Assam; no fewer than 3,500 Bengalis, also in Assam; 37,000 ethnic Reangs displaced from Mizoram into Tripura; 25,000 Bengalis in Tripura; and 3,000 ethnic Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh.

Displacement from Kashmir

As many as 350,000 Kashmiris, mostly Hindu Pandits, have been displaced since 1990 as a result of long-standing conflict in Kashmir between the Indian armed forces and separatists among the majority Muslim community. According to the Indian authorities, continuing violence in Kashmir led to the deaths of 762 civilians in 2000.

Some 250,000 displaced Kashmiris are living in or near the city of Jammu, both in camps for the displaced and in their own homes. An estimated 100,000 Kashmiris are displaced elsewhere in India, primarily in the New Delhi area.

Many displaced Pandits receive cash assistance and food aid from the Indian government. Former government workers continue to receive full salaries or retirement benefits. Nevertheless, some displaced Kashmiris complain that government assistance is inadequate.

In July 2000, the Nizbul Mujahadeen, the largest Islamic militant group in Kashmir, initiated a three-month unilateral cease-fire and began talks with the Indian government. In August, the dialogue broke down as other Pakistani militant groups opposed to the cease-fire killed more than 100 Hindu Pandits in Jammu and Kashmir. By the end of 2000, the Indian government initiated its own unilateral cease-fire; however, no official talks had taken place with the Kashmiri militant groups.

On October 12, India's home minister, Mustaq Ahmad Lone, said that 43,510 Kashmiris who became displaced because of the conflict from May to July 1999 remained displaced in 2000.

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