Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2017, 16:28 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - India

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 10 June 2002
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - India , 10 June 2002, available at: [accessed 16 December 2017]
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 2001, some 345,000 refugees were living in India, including as many as 144,000 from Sri Lanka, 110,000 from China (Tibet), 52,000 from Burma, 15,000 from Bhutan, 12,000 from Afghanistan, an estimated 5,000 to 20,000 from Bangladesh, and nearly 300 from other countries.

An estimated 40,000 Afghans were living in India in refugee-like conditions.

More than 500,000 people were internally displaced in India because of political violence, including about 350,000 Kashmiris and an estimated 157,000 others in Northeast India.

About 17,000 Kashmiris from the Indian-controlled area of Kashmir remained in Pakistan.

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 the agency access only to refugees living in urban centers and does not formally recognize UNHCR grants of refugee status (although it has provided "residential permits" to many Afghans and Burmese). India considers Tibetans and Sri Lankans in camps to be prima facie refugees but regards most other groups 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 18-year conflict between Sri Lanka's Sinhalese Buddhist majority and Tamil Hindu minority has led more than 144,000 Sri Lankan Tamils to seek refuge in India.

Some 64,000 of the refugees live in state-run camps in Tamil Nadu State. The state government provides the refugees with cash assistance and food rations, as well as space to build homes. All refugees may receive social services available to Indians, and are permitted to work and attend school.

However, while some of the refugee camps are well maintained, others are badly neglected, with inadequate sanitation and insufficient clean drinking water ranking among the main problems. While the authorities permit refugees to work outside the camps, government restrictions on refugees' movements make it difficult for them to keep jobs.

Estimates of the number of Sri Lankan refugees living outside the camps vary widely. According to the U.S. State Department, as many as 80,000 Sri Lankan Tamils lived outside of the camps at year's end.

The 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 sometimes are subjected to physical abuse." During the year, the government of Tamil Nadu State initiated a review of the detainees at these camps to determine whether any could be released. Subsequently, some detainees were allowed to return to Sri Lanka, while about 170 persons remained in the special camps.

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 effectively functions as a Tibetan government-in-exile.

The number of Tibetan refugees in India fluctuates because of the arrival of more than 1,000 refugees from Tibet each year and the return of unknown numbers to Tibet. According to UNHCR, 1,381 Tibetans fled through Nepal to India in 2001. UNHCR assisted the refugees 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, must struggle to survive. The Indian authorities continue to permit Tibetan refugees to enter, although the government has not granted legal residence to most who have arrived in recent years.

Refugees from Burma

At least 50,000 ethnic Chin refugees from Burma were living in India, mostly in Mizoram State in Northeast India. The Chin, who are mostly 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.

In September, a branch of the Young Mizo Association, an influential pressure group, issued "eviction notices" to all "foreigners" (Burmese Chin) who lived in Lenglei District. The Mizoram chief minister said in July that he wanted "the border with Burma to be fenced to check the further infiltration of immigrants in the state."

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 religious persecution and raids on their villages by the Burmese military in Sagaing Division.

Another 876 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.

Refugees from Bhutan

An estimated 15,000 Lhotsampas – ethnic Nepalese refugees from Bhutan – live in India, mostly 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 remain outside their country for the same reasons as Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, USCR considers them to be refugees.

Refugees from Bangladesh

Between October and the end of the year, an estimated 5,000 to 20,000 Bangladeshi Hindus and other minorities fled to India to escape violence following Bangladesh's national election, which brought a pro-Muslim party to power. The previous Hindu-supported government was known for its secular policies and its close relations with India.

Soon after the vote in Bangladesh, fundamentalist Muslims reportedly began violently targeting Hindus and other supporters of the previous government. Subsequently, asylum seekers – mostly Hindu – began fleeing across the border into India, bringing accounts of murder, rape, lootings, house burnings, and theft of livestock and household goods.

Most asylum seekers fled to the eastern Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura, with others going to Assam and Meghalaya. Numbers were difficult to obtain, although UNHCR put the figure at 5,000 to 10,000. A Bangladeshi government official acknowledged that "some" Hindu families had fled to India, while a pro-Hindu group in India said that 40,000 Bangladeshi Hindus had fled to India since October. Later that month, one source estimated that, on average, 50 to 60 Bangladeshi families were entering West Bengal each day. Other estimates ranged from 17,000 to 30,000. Based on the estimates, USCR has put the range at 5,000 to 20,000.

India, however, did not welcome the Bangladeshis as refugees, instead calling them "economic migrants" or even "intruders." Indian officials reportedly arrested many of the asylum seekers for illegally crossing the border, placed them in jail, and said that they would be returned to Bangladesh following discussions with the Bangladeshi government. In late November, members of India's parliament urged border guards to exercise restraint and not resort to firing on Hindus or other Bangladeshi minorities seeking to enter India.

Despite these reports, UNHCR said the Bangladeshi Hindus in West Bengal were living among a sympathetic local population and thus faced few problems. Although the Indian government provided the refugees no assistance, private agencies, supported by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, were reportedly providing some aid.

Although Bangladeshi authorities offered to welcome the asylum seekers back and ensure their security, the Bangladeshi Hindus appeared unwilling to return at year's end.

In addition to the Bangladeshis fleeing the post-election violence that began in October, other minorities from Bangladesh also sought protection in India during 2001. In some cases, Indian authorities refused to provide even temporary refuge. Following communal violence in late March between Muslims and Buddhist Marmas and Chakmas in Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracks, a group of ethnic Marmas attempted to enter India's Tripura State. Within 24 hours, Indian border guards forcibly returned 34 Marma families after a meeting with Bangladeshi border security forces.

Urban Refugees

Some 13,149 UNHCR-recognized refugees lived in urban centers in India, mostly in New Delhi, at the end of 2001. A large majority, some 12,000, were from Afghanistan. Smaller numbers came from Burma (876), Iran (95), Somalia (68), Sudan (67), and elsewhere.

During the year, UNHCR recognized 546 asylum seekers as refugees, including 340 Afghans, 130 Burmese, 30 Sudanese, and 24 Iranians. According to Indian refugee advocates, more than 40,000 other Afghans may be living in India in refugee-like circumstances.

The Indian government has granted six-month, renewable residence permits to Afghans and Burmese recognized as refugees by UNHCR. Although the government stopped providing the permits to Afghans in 1998, it again began issuing them in September 2001 – but only for Afghans who had travel documents (valid or expired).

All other UNHCR-recognized refugees risk being arrested and returned to their home countries (although UNHCR reported no such returns during 2001). UNHCR intervenes in such cases and arranges resettlement, whenever possible, to other countries.

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 has swelled with the arrival of millions of ethnic Bengali Hindus and Muslims from Bangladesh and from India's West Bengal State.

Population growth led to competition for land and jobs, and to tensions among ethnic minority groups as well as between migrants and ethnic groups. Those tensions gave rise to ethnic and politically based insurgencies that have battled the Indian armed forces, attacked each other, and turned on civilian populations belonging to rival ethnic groups. The violence has caused widespread displacement.

Throughout the Northeast, conditions for the displaced remained poor during 2001. Violence and displacement continued in some areas, and no intergovernmental or international organizations were present. Many of the displaced lived in public buildings and makeshift shelters, with little health care and no access to formal education. State officials and local NGOs provided some food aid, but the assistance often arrived sporadically and was insufficient.

Ethnic conflicts in Assam State have left about 5,000 people dead since 1978. Clashes between Bodos and Senthals continued during the year, resulting in 40 deaths. In early June, the region's minister blamed the deaths of ten forestry workers on the National Democratic Front of Bodolan general strike to protest the continuing presence of the Chakmas, whom they still view as refugees from Bangladesh despite the ruling of India's supreme court that the Chakmas are Indian citizens. The All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union called the strike to pressure the provincial and federal governments to deport the Chakmas.

More than 31,000 Reangs (6,956 families) remained displaced in six camps in northern Tripura. They fled from neighboring Mizoram in 1997 following attacks by majority Mizos. Since then, at least 260 Reangs have died from inadequate shelter and polluted water in the camps.

In August 2000, the Mizoram chief minister agreed to facilitate the return of the Reangs to Mizoram. By the end of 2001, however, the government had made no progress on the repatriation.

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 Kashmir Times, continuing violence in Kashmir led to the deaths of more than 900 civilians in 2001.

Some 250,000 displaced Kashmiris are living in or near the city of Jammu, both in private homes and in nine camps for the displaced in Jammu District. As many as 100,000 Kashmiris are displaced elsewhere in India, primarily in the New Delhi area.

The Indian government provides cash assistance and food aid to many of the displaced Pandits. Former government workers continue to receive full salaries or retirement benefits.

Search Refworld