Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2018, 17:46 GMT

World Refugee Survey 2008 - India

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 19 June 2008
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, World Refugee Survey 2008 - India, 19 June 2008, available at: [accessed 21 January 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.

IND figures


India hosted around 420,400 refugees, including some 110,000 from Tibet who fled since China's 1951 annexation. Another 102,300, mostly Tamil Sri Lankans, escaped fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and Sri Lankan armed forces. About 35,000 of them, living in refugee camps in Tami Nadu, were of Indian origin.

About 75,000 ethnic Chin from Myanmar lived in the eastern state of Mizoram, fleeing persecution because of their Christian faith and non-Burman ethnicity. Some 50,000 Nepalis fled to India after recurrent violence between Maoist rebels and their Government over the past few years. In September, thousands of lowland Madhesis arrived after the murder of their leader. There were about 36,000 Buddhist ethnic Chakmas and Hajongs from present day Bangladesh who fled to Arunachal Pradesh after Muslim annexation of their land in 1964. More than 31,000 from Afghanistan, mostly Hindus, fled to India during the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. About 15,000 Lhotshampa and Sarchop Bhutanese lived in Assam and West Bengal after Bhutan had expelled them following its 1985 census, and many more resided in Nepal. Around 200 Palestinian refugees from Iraq arrived during the year.

Refoulement/Physical Protection

India forced at least two refugees back to their countries of origin but one was able to return. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), however, was unable to monitor the border regions.

In May, one Bhutanese refugee died, and two others sustained injuries, when police fired on them as they attempted to cross the Indo-Nepalese border to enter Bhutan through India. In June, unknown assailants murdered a Myanmarese woman at the house where she worked in Mizoram.

Refugees, particularly Myanmarese, reported harassment and sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) in the capital.

India treated refugees differently, depending on their nationality. It generally granted protection to Tibetans and Sri Lankan Tamils. Tibetans received government authorization closest to a residence permit. Nepalis could enter freely; those with documentation enjoyed most of the rights of Indian citizens under the 1950 Indo-Nepali Peace and Friendship treaty. The Government allowed Afghans who had completed 12 years of residency to apply for citizenship. More than 120 naturalized and another 4,000expressed interest.

India was not party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and had no refugee law. In 1996, its Supreme Court ruled that guarantees of life and personal liberty in the 1950 Constitution protected refugees from refoulement and, in August 2007, the Court affirmed this in the case of an ethnic Armenian Christian resisting return to Iran after his visa expired. India's Citizenship Amendment Act of 2003 defined all non-citizens who entered without visas as illegal migrants, with no exception for refugees or asylum seekers.

UNHCR had no formal status in the country, and India barred it from operating in the northeastern border region. The agency recognized 11,400 refugees under its mandate, mostly Afghan and Myanmarese, and issued them documentation, which the Government respected. Refugees had to travel to New Delhi to reach UNHCR, and some reported waiting up to two years to register with the agency. In September, UNHCR suspended for some weeks the issuance of registration appointments for new arrivals from Myanmar, but it also registered some 200 asylum seekers during that period.

In April, the National Human Rights Commission appointed a working group of jurists who drafted the 2006 Refugee and Asylum Seekers Protection Bill, adapted from a 1977 model law.

Detention/Access to Courts

The state of Tamil Nadu detained an unspecified number of Sri Lankan Tamils it suspected of being members of the Tamil Tiger rebel group in two special camps. About 36 Myanmarese Rohingya remained in detention although the Government acceded to their request for a transfer from the Andaman Islands to Kolkata Jail. Charged with arms smuggling, the group inquired with UNHCR about applying for asylum but the agency told them their claim would not succeed. In April, intelligence agents detained another three refugees in Ramanathapuram camp, who confessed to being Tamil Tigers after seven days of interrogation. India released into the care of UNCHR three Myanmarese refugees it had detained in 2006 for unauthorized stay in West Bengal. India released an Iranian after UNHCR recognized him as a refugee. In September, Mizoram police detained six vendors as part of their regular sweeps against Myanmarese.

Authorities detained a Somali refugee for attempting to depart illegally, but released him late in the year after he went to trial and served his sentence. The Government also detained seven members of an Afghan family seeking asylum but allowed UNHCR access to determine their status. India detained a Palestinian refugee for violating the Foreigners Act but later allowed him to depart for Dubai.

The Constitution prohibited discrimination based on race, religion, place of birth, and other grounds, extended to all persons equality before the law and the equal protection of the law, granted protection of life and liberty, and protected against unlawful detention. The Foreigners Act contained broad powers of detention and made illegal entry into the country a crime punishable by up to five years in prison, with no exception for refugees or asylum seekers.

The National Human Rights Commission was able to monitor detention facilities, but did not have a mandate specifically to protect refugees and asylum seekers. In New Delhi, UNHCR provided legal aid through an implementing partner. Refugees had access to the judicial system under the Constitution but delays rendered the courts ineffective. However, UNHCR and its legal implementing partners helped some refugee women complaining of SBGV to go to court.

The Government ordinarily issued residence permits to pre-2001 Afghan refugees and Myanmarese refugees recognized by UNHCR; other refugees generally did not receive official government documentation authorizing their residence in India. In Mizoram, Chin caught without documentation had to pay bribes of 200 to 500 rupees ($4.50 to $11) to avoid deportation. India issued identity documents that legalized their stay in the country to Tibetans and Sri Lankan Tamils. Generally, mandate refugees did not receive government authorization legalizing their stay in India. UNHCR provided the refugees it recognized with papers, but India did not officially recognize these. UNHCR also provided documentation to asylum seekers, which authorities generally respected.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

Local immigration offices imposed restrictions on some refugees, requiring written permission to travel within specific periods. Refugees who possessed only UNHCR papers could not leave New Delhi, as UNHCR's mandate protected them only in the capital. Refugees could move freely only in the city of residence documented on their UNHCR certificate. In August, following the arrests of 15 Myanmarese Rohingyas some authorities suspected of links to Al Qaeda, police imposed curfew and restricted people from moving freely between 4:00 pm and 7:00 am in Moreh in Manipur.

In May, Bhutanese refugees residing in Nepal passed through India attempting to reenter their country, but when Bhutan denied them entry, India returned them to Nepal at the Mechi Bridge crossing, where clashes broke out between refugees and Indian police.

Tibetan refugees had to live in designated areas in Arunachal Pradesh but had begun moving out, prompting complaints by local student bodies that the Tibetans were acquiring land with fraudulent papers and were engaging in political activity.

The Government encamped newly arriving Sri Lankan and Tibetan refugees, maintaining a special facility in Tamil Nadu for Sri Lankan refugees suspected of rebel links. India maintained 100 more camps for other Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu. Residents were free to live outside these camps, but had to return every two weeks for attendance to receive aid. Camp residents who worked outside had to return by 7 p.m. each night for the regular headcounts or camp officials would sign for them and take the government allowance. Indian authorities declared 200 Sri Lankan refugees missing from Mandapam camp during a surprise inspection in September.

Sri Lankans and other recognized refugees living outside the camps had to register with the nearest Foreigners Regional Registration Office, usually a department of the local police station. They also had to remain in the district unless they applied for permission (usually granted), to relocate to another district for economic or other reasons.

The Constitution reserved to citizens certain rights, including freedom of movement and choice of residence. The Foreigners Act, and the 1948 Foreigners Order implementing it, gave the Government the power to force all foreigners, including refugees and asylum seekers, to "reside in a particular place" to "[impose] any restrictions on [their] movements," and to prosecute criminally anyone aiding or abetting their escape. The Foreigners Order prohibited refugees and asylum seekers from leaving India without permission. India rarely issued international travel documents to long-term Tibetan refugees. At the end of 2006, India instituted a policy that banned Tibetans who entered the country with valid visas and subsequently applied for residence permits from receiving international travel documents. Under certain conditions, however, it allowed Tibetan refugees to travel outside and reenter India. Mandate refugees reported harassment when they tried to obtain travel clearances and to transfer residence permits in Faridabad and Delhi.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

India did not grant refugees the right to work, but it generally tolerated Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees' informal employment. Tibetans could obtain certification to practice professions, but other groups of refugees could not. Sri Lankan refugees, outside UNHCR's mandate, could work in areas neighboring their camps.

Refugees recognized by UNHCR had no access to legal employment, but often worked in the informal sector. Many worked as street vendors, a highly visible job which made it easy for police to extort money or inventory from them. Although employers often underpaid them and landlords overcharged them, refugees could not report this abuse. India did not have a social security system, but UNHCR contracted with national nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to supervise their working conditions in the informal sector, intervening with employers in cases of exploitation and SGBV, which many reported.

Chin refugees without official status in Mizoram had to obtain letters from both the local government and the Young Mizo Association (YMA) to rent an apartment legally. The YMA, a nationalist group with strong influence over the state government, conducted inspections to make sure Chin had the letters, and deported those it found without them.

The Constitution reserved to citizens the rights to work, practice professions, join unions, and operate businesses. As foreigners, refugees could not legally own land, but Tibetan refugees often acquired land with Indians acting as proxies. Refugees and migrants could open bank accounts provided they had local addresses and an Indian referee.

Public Relief and Education

Much of the housing in Sri Lankan camps was of poor quality, but the Tami Nadu government gave residents subsidized rice and other goods, and in March announced it would double the cash allowance to camp residents. Government hospitals provided free medical services near the camps. India's public relief to Tamil refugees approached that given to nationals. India gave no aid to Bangladeshi and other refugees it did not recognize.

UNCHR granted a subsistence allowance to mandate refugees with health or protection risks. Mandate refugees had to wait nearly two months for UNHCR reimbursement for medical visits, which did not cover private treatment. In June, an Iranian refugee died of heart disease because, family members alleged, UNHCR refused to pay for private treatment.

India did not allow UNHCR or NGOs to enter sensitive border areas like Mizoram or Manipur, where many refugees lived in desperate conditions. In Tamil Nadu, however, the local government granted both national and international agencies access to camps.

All refugees with government permission to stay in the country, such as Tibetans, could attend public schools. While refugees under UNHCR's mandate were not eligible for government services, some could attend municipal schools in New Delhi. UNHCR reimbursed mandate refugees for their children's school fees but this did not cover all costs. Children of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu attended free primary schools, where they received a daily meal and school supplies. Children of Nepalis with documentation could attend government schools. In Manipur, however, some 200 Myanmarese children had no access to education, and young girls resorted to prostitution to support their families. Most children there suffered from malnutrition, malaria, and gastrointestinal diseases.

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