India hosted more than 292,000 refugees in 1998. The refugee population included 110,000 from Tibet (China), 110,000 from Sri Lanka, 40,000 from Burma, 16,000 from Afghanistan, 15,000 from Bhutan, and more than 1,100 from other countries. More than 520,000 people were internally displaced in India due to political violence, including some 350,000 Kashmiris and more than 170,000 others of various ethnicities displaced in northeast India.

India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and does not have a formal refugee policy, but does sit on UNHCR's Executive Committee (EXCOM). India responds to refugee groups through administrative decrees on a case-by-case basis. For example, it considers the Tibetans and Sri Lankans to be refugees, and has assisted these groups. However, it considers the ethnic Chin from Burma to be economic migrants. It does not grant status to the more than 17,000 Afghans, Somalis, and Sudanese, whom UNHCR recognizes as refugees. In a 1998 article on refugees and human rights, UNHCR's legal officer in India, Brian Gorlich, said, "This differential treatment of refugees is a fundamental problem. It negates the provision of legal rights and assistance which would normally be granted by an asylum country. Moreover, it is not clear what legal status or rights accrue to a person as a refugee."

In 1998, USCR assessed, first hand, conditions for displaced persons in Northeast India and in Jammu and Kashmir. USCR visited camps for displaced Santhals, Bengalis, and Nepalis in western Assam, and for displaced Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu.

In recent years, Indian NGOs, human rights activists, and academics have taken a more active interest in the situation of refugees and internally displaced persons in India. During 1998, they organized several conferences on the subject and published journals about refugees and displacement.

Refugees from Tibet

Some 85,000 Tibetan refugees fled to India after China annexed Tibet in 1959. India has permitted Tibetans to establish their own administration, based in the northern Indian city of Dharamsala, which in effect functions as a Tibetan government in exile. Estimates of the number of Tibetan refugees in India vary because many of the original refugees have died, many children have been born in the refugee settlements, and thousands more arrive from Tibet each year. Also, each year an unknown number of Tibetans return to Tibet after completing their pilgrimages or studies.

In 1998, the Tibetan Administration in India (the Tibetian government in exile) estimated that more than 110,000 Tibetan refugees lived in India. Some 3,100 Tibetans arrived in India during the year, having fled over the Himalaya Mountains to Nepal, where UNHCR assisted them in their journey on to India.

Many Tibetans continue to flee to India because of religious or political persecution, and intend to remain there. Others are on pilgrimages to meet the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhists' exiled spiritual leader, or go to India hoping to study Tibetan language and culture. The Tibetan refugee leadership encourages most of those on pilgrimages and many who come to study to return to Tibet, both to counteract the overwhelming Chinese presence in Tibet and because the two dozen Tibetan refugee settlements in India cannot absorb so many people.

Although India has been generous and flexible toward the Tibetans, refugee leaders worry that a constant increase in the Tibetan refugee population could eventually strain relations with their hosts. Tibetans who return to Tibet often do so in fear. They worry that if the Chinese authorities in Tibet know that they have spent time in India, they will regard them as security threats.

Many Tibetans in India have achieved economic self-sufficiency, but some, including elderly persons, women-headed families, and recent arrivals, struggle. Although the Indian authorities have continued to permit Tibetan refugees to enter, they have not granted most of those who have arrived in recent years legal residence.

In January and February 1998, the Indian authorities arrested 21 Tibetans for not having residence papers. Tibetan advocacy groups feared that India might be signalling a change in policy toward Tibetan refugees, but the Indian authorities released the detainees after several days and made no further arrests during the year. In response to a USCR inquiry about the incident, the Tibetan Administration said that the arrests were the result of Indian authorities' increased security measures for the safety of the Dalai Lama. There are indications that the Chinese authorities, who scorn the Dalai Lama and repudiate the Tibetan Administration, have sent infiltrators to Dharamsala.

In March, six Tibetan refugees in Delhi began a hunger strike to protest China's occupation of Tibet and human rights abuses against the Tibetan people. During the strike, the Dalai Lama visited the hunger strikers. On April 2, more than 1,000 Tibetan refugees held a march in New Delhi in support of the hunger strikers. The Indian authorities forcefully broke up the hunger strike in late April. A Tibetan man set himself on fire to protest the Indian authorities' break-up of the hunger strike.

Refugees from Sri Lanka

A 15-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, 3,839 Tamil refugees fled to India and sought admission to refugee camps during 1998; it was not known how many Sri Lankans may have fled to India but not registered with the authorities there. On July 26, 1998, 40 Sri Lankan asylum seekers drowned in the Palk Straits when the boat carrying them from Sri Lanka to India capsized in stormy waters. Ten other passengers survived.

Some 70,000 of the Tamil refugees in India live in 131 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu State. Many others never moved into camps, or settled there but later left to live among the local population. Estimates of their number vary from 30,000 to 100,000, although 40,000 is the figure most often cited. USCR estimates the total Tamil refugee population in India at about 110,000.

India does not allow UNHCR regular access to the camps. Beginning in 1993, India also barred NGOs from assisting the refugees. However, following a change of government in India, in February 1998 the new government lifted that restriction. UNHCR again sought access to the camps, but was denied. Reportedly, the government did not grant UNHCR access, fearing that it would be critical of conditions in the camps; that it might encourage the free movement of refugees, which the government would view as a threat to security; and because UNHCR's presence in the camps might make the refugees more resistant to repatriation in the future.

An article by researchers A. Arulanathan and E. Van Schaak in the March 1998 Indian journal Seminar suggested why the Indian government would perceive such a threat: "It is part of the Government of India's policy to ignore the refugee problem by neglecting camp conditions in an attempt to pressure the refugees to leave (overtly and covertly) when the situation in Sri Lanka allows it."

Some of the refugee camps in India were well maintained, but others were badly neglected. According to the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center (SAHRDC), inadequate sanitation was a problem in even the best camps. In most camps, the supply of clean drinking water was low. The Indian authorities gave camp residents cash grants and provided them some non-food items at subsidized rates, but the refugees complained that the assistance was insufficient, especially for families with many children. The refugees were allowed to work outside the camps, but restrictions on their movement made it difficult for them to keep jobs.

India does permit UNHCR a limited role with refugees wishing to repatriate. According to UNHCR, 14 Tamils repatriated with UNHCR assistance during 1998. An estimated 100 others may have repatriated by their own means.

Refugees from Burma

Up to 40,000 ethnic Chin Burmese refugees lived in India's northeastern Mizoram State (Chin leaders say the number may reach 50,000) in 1998. The Chin, who are largely Christian, are among the many ethnic minorities that have suffered discrimination under successive Burmese governments, and persecution by the present Burmese regime. Another 588 Burmese whom UNHCR recognized as refugees, and in some cases assisted, lived in Delhi during the year. The group included both former students who fled Burma after the Burmese authorities crushed the pro-democracy movement in 1988, and ethnic Chin who made the long and costly journey from Mizoram to Delhi to seek UNHCR protection.

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. Ethnically, the Chin are closely related to the Mizo, the majority ethnic group in Mizoram, as well as Kukis and Paite, other tribal groups in Northeast India. These close ethnic links have made it possible for many of the Chin to live inconspicuously among the local people. However, not all Mizo welcome the Chin. That largely results from the xenophobia that has emerged in Northeast India in recent years, which has led to conflict among local tribal groups. In 1994, the Indian authorities closed the Chin refugee camps and drove some of the Chin refugees back into Burma. Since then, tensions between locals and the refugees have persisted.

Refugees from Bhutan

An estimated 15,000 Lhotsampa, ethnic Nepalese refugees from Bhutan, were living in India (estimates varied). Most were 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. 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.

In 1996 and 1997, Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal attempted a number of "peace marches" from the Nepal-India border to the India Bhutan border. The marchers sought to make their way to Bhutan to demand permission to repatriate. India arrested many of the marchers and blocked them from entering Bhutan.

Beginning in late 1997, several hundred ethnic Sharchops (or Sarchops) from eastern Bhutan fled into India. In a 1998 report on Bhutanese refugees, SAHRDC said that the exodus was the result of Bhutan's political persecution of Sharchops, Bhutan's second largest ethnic group. Many Sharchops support the Druk National Congress (DNC), a political party seeking more democratic reform and human rights protection in Bhutan. The Sharchops were known to be living in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, but little information existed about their exact number, status, or conditions.

Refugees from Bangladesh

On December 2, 1997, Bangladesh signed a peace agreement with the Shanti Bahini that led to the repatriation of all the remaining Chakma refugees in India. The Shanti Bahini had fought since 1973 for greater autonomy for the indigenous Chakma and other mostly Buddhist residents of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) area of predominantly Muslim Bangladesh. The conflict between the Bangladesh military and the Shanti Bahini left tens of thousands dead during its 25-year history and caused tens of thousands of Chakma and other ethnic minorities to flee to India, mostly since the mid-1980s.

Some 13,500 Chakma returned home in December 1997, immediately following the agreement. In accordance with the peace treaty, the Shanti Bahini formally surrendered on February 10, 1998, and began laying down their arms. On February 27, the last of the 40,000 Chakma refugees who remained in India at the end of 1997 repatriated to Bangladesh.

"Urban" Refugees

UNHCR recognized 17,179 refugees in India, most of whom lived in New Delhi. According to UNHCR, a large majority, 16,058, were from Afghanistan. There were smaller numbers from Burma (588), Iran (203), Somalia (178), Sudan (81), Iraq (44), and other countries. UNHCR reported that it newly recognized 440 persons as refugees during 1998, including 235 Afghans and 153 Burmese.

UNHCR-recognized refugees have no legal status under Indian law. However, according to UNHCR, they were required to register with the Foreigners Regional Registration Office and apply for a "Residential Permit." India permits UNHCR-recognized refugees to remain, but does not permit them to work. UNHCR provides recognized refugees "refugee certificates" that have to be renewed yearly. UNHCR provides medical assistance, vocational training, and other social services through local NGOs.

For a number of years, UNHCR provided urban refugees cash assistance, but in recent years has begun to give them one-time "self sufficiency" or "lump-sum" grants so that they can establish small enterprises to support themselves. Indian advocacy groups and the refugees themselves have sharply criticized these grants, saying that they are inadequate and that few refugees are able to establish viable businesses. Other refugees say that when they try to engage in economic activities, either the Indian authorities or local people harass them. Many refugees live in deplorable conditions. In recent years, urban refugees have held numerous demonstrations outside the UNHCR office to protest the agency's assistance policy.

Internal Displacement

Political and communal violence has caused significant internal displacements in two main regions of India: the Northeast and Kashmir. More than 170,000 persons of various ethnicities were displaced in several states in Northeast India in 1998, and an estimated 350,000 Kashmiris, mostly Hindu Pandits but also including Kashmiri Muslims and Sikhs, were displaced. India appears to lack any formal mechanisms for determining how the national or state governments should respond to situations of internal displacement.

Displacement in Northeast India

In 1998, USCR visited Northeast India, a geographically and politically isolated area of India that is home to many "tribal" groups. It is divided into seven states: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura. In recent decades, millions of ethnic Bengali Hindus and Muslims have moved into Northeast India from Bangladesh and India's West Bengal State. As the population has swelled, resources have diminished, competition has grown, and tension has risen among ethnic minority groups and migrants, and among the ethnic groups themselves. That tension has resulted in conflict and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people in Northeast India. The Indian government's economic and political neglect of the Northeast, the resulting underdevelopment, and local people's sense of political exclusion and powerlessness have also contributed significantly to tensions.

Throughout the Northeast, conditions for the displaced are poor. Violence and displacement continue in some areas, and there are no intergovernmental or international organizations present. The displaced live in public buildings and flimsily constructed shelters. There is little medical care and no formal education. Many of the displaced receive food aid, but that aid arrives sporadically, and the displaced complain that it is insufficient.

The level of violence, number of displaced, and the conditions for the displaced vary from state to state in the Northeast. The total number of people displaced in the Northeast at the end of 1998 was between 170,000 and 230,000. That figure included 80,000 ethnic Santhals (and a small number of ethnic Nepalese) in Assam; from 3,500 to 60,000 Bengalis in Assam; more than 20,000 ethnic Paite, Kuki, and Naga in Manipur; 39,000 ethnic Reangs displaced from Mizoram into Tripura; 25,000 Bengalis in Tripura; and 3,000 ethnic Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh.

In Assam, the displaced Santhals, Bengalis, and ethnic Nepalis were largely displaced by Bodo (or Boro) insurgents seeking greater autonomy or independence. In the mid-1990s, Bodo attacks on Bengalis and ethnic Nepalis aimed at increasing the proportion of Bodos in the area displaced more than 60,000 people, mostly Bengalis. It is difficult to know how many of the Bengalis who became displaced remained displaced in 1998. Some or many of the Bengalis displaced during that time have settled elsewhere, but thousands remain in camps. The government no longer assists those still in camps, and there are no reliable estimates of their number. USCR visited one camp that was home to some 3,500 displaced Bengalis. Other such camps exist. In the absence of reputable information, USCR only counted the 3,500 it observed first-hand as displaced persons in India, although other estimates are as high as 60,000.

In May 1996, Bodos mounted large-scale attacks on ethnic Santhals that displaced more than 250,000 persons, mostly Santhals. Santhals also armed and fought back, causing the displacement of several thousand Bodos. During 1997, most of the displaced Santhals and all of the displaced Bodos returned to their homes. However, the Assam state government prevented some 40,000 Santhals from doing so, saying that the land they had lived on was "forest land" protected by law (Bodos living in the same forest areas were, however, able to return home).

In May 1998, further Bodo attacks displaced another 25,000 Santhals, many for the second time. The displaced population again grew to between 65,000 to 80,000, living in 33 camps. Bodo-Santhal clashes in September left 30 dead and resulted in the displacement of another 2,000 people.

The displaced were mostly living in public buildings, makeshift shelters, or under plastic sheeting. In most camps, there was little medical care and no formal education. Camp residents reported deaths and malnutrition in the Assamese camps resulting from inadequate health care and food aid, but USCR was unable to confirm these allegations.

In early May 1998, residents of Kachugaon camp, who had gone without food aid for 17 days, took food by force from a local merchant. The next day, the police came to the camp and met with the residents. Tension erupted, and the police allegedly fired into the crowd, killing three of the displaced and injuring seven others.

The displaced in western Assam told USCR that their major concern was uncertainty about the future. The majority cannot return home because they lived in the so-called forest areas. The local authorities have told them that they also cannot stay in camps and receive assistance indefinitely. But those same authorities cannot help them find any alternative, leaving them in limbo.

Conflict between ethnic Kukis and Nagas in the state of Manipur left more than 1,000 dead and temporarily displaced as many as 130,000 between 1993 and 1997. Most of the displaced had returned home by 1998. In July 1997, the Naga-Kuki conflict led to a spinoff conflict between Kukis and ethnic Paites (also known as Zomi) that displaced more than 15,000 Paites. A Paite relief group set up 30 camps for them, but most soon returned home. Some 3,500 Paites fled into Mizoram, where the state government created three camps for them. They returned to Manipur in July 1998, after the Kukis and Paites signed an agreement aimed at ending their rift.

Tensions between ethnic Reangs (also known as Bru) and Mizos in the state of Mizoram led to the displacement of more than 30,000 Reangs into neighboring Tripura in late 1997. The Mizoram government set up a camp for the Reangs in Kanchan district and provided some food aid. The camp reportedly lacked proper sanitation, clean drinking water, or adequate shelters.

The December 25, 1997, Hindu (India) reported that 17 displaced Reangs died of starvation and disease between November 3 and December 16, 1997. Further health problems were reported in mid-1998; more than 100 displaced Reangs living in the camp reportedly died of gastro enteritis. The government responded to the outbreak by using tankers to bring fresh water to the camp. Continued tension in Mizoram led to a further influx of displaced Reangs into Tripura in July, raising the camp population to 36,000. According to local sources, there are also 25,000 displaced Bengalis living in camps in the Khowai region of Tripura. They were displaced by conflict between tribal groups in Tripura and Bengali migrants, who now comprise a majority of Tripura's population.

More than 3,000 ethnic Chakma were displaced in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. The Chakma, originally from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of what is now Bangladesh, first entered India in 1964. They had been displaced by a large dam construction project in the CHT. New Delhi resettled the 40,000 Chakma and 10,000 ethnic Hajong in what is now the state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Over the years, the Chakma population grew to some 65,000, and Chakma became the third largest ethnic group in the sparsely populated state. As the Chakma population grew, so did local tribal groups' resentment toward them. Several years ago, India's Supreme Court ruled that the Chakma were eligible for Indian citizenship and had a right to live in Arunachal Pradesh. But locals and the state government repudiated the Court's ruling. Violence by locals directed at Chakma has resulted in the displacement of more than 3,000 Chakma.

Kashmir Displaced

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. Some 250,000 were living in or near the city of Jammu, both in camps for the displaced and in their own homes; an estimated 100,000 other Kashmiris were displaced elsewhere in India, many in the Delhi area.

In Jammu, about 59,000 of the displaced Pandits received both cash assistance and food aid from the government. The Indian government continued to pay the full salary (or retirement benefits) of another 14,800 former government workers, even though most were not actually working in government jobs. The government has built nearly 4,600 one-room, semi-permanent houses and thirteen schools for the displaced, and provided them medical care. The displaced said that education and medical care were inadequate. Most displaced Pandits want to return home, but only if the situation there changes significantly, and the government assures them protection.


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