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Views & Reviews

The Refugee Dilemma

By EMN Updated: Apr 11, 2021 10:58 pm

Newspapers citing information from the Chief Minister of Nagaland, reported no movement of refugees entering Nagaland while fleeing Myanmar in view of the recent military coup and crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. With reports of grouping and alliance by the armies of the ethnic groups, which had been at loggerheads with the military for the past 70 years and were in ceasefire with the civil government under Suu Kyi, the political situation in Myanmar appears more predictable. Al Jazeera has further reported willingness of the members of anti-coup joining ethnic armed groups to fight with the military in defence of their people, which finds expression in devastated ordinary citizens who lost their near ones to the inhuman military crackdown. Amidst nation-wide unrest, the UN has warned the deadly military crackdown in Myanmar becoming a full-blown civil war.

The fallout of the army’s crackdown in Myanmar is sure to trigger a humanitarian crisis unfolding in our backyard, pushing people seeking asylum further towards our land. The means to deal with the oncoming persecuted lots and the management of which will offset debates and counter-narratives. The question pertaining to accommodating people fleeing persecution has been further compounded by the complete absence of a national law on refugees. Though the 1951 United Nations Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees define who may be classified a refugee and sets out the rights of refugees, India is a signatory to none.

India has permitted certain ethnicities and nationalities to reside in its land and prominent of which are Tibetans, Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka and Chakmas of Bangladesh. The central government has recently looked for a more permanent solution to the refugee issue in the form of Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the initiative has however suffered a public backlash for it being communal in content and limited in its extent as it only made reference to minorities in only three neighbouring countries.

It is empirically evident that absence of categorical and long-term refugee laws has once again raised issues of centre-state relations. The government at the centre in its recent advisory instructed the states sharing boundary with Myanmar not to allow Myanmar nationals crossing border for refugee, which is interpreted to be diametrically opposed to the interest of, and the committed stance adopted by, the state governments. A case in hand is the flattened rejection of the centre plea by Mizoram Chief Minister, saying his government, on humanitarian grounds, will accept people fleeing the crackdown. The same feeling was also reflected by the Nagaland Chief Minister who directed state instrumentalities to deal with the refugees with ‘human feelings’ and on humanitarian grounds. Even Manipur Chief Minister, after facing public reprisal for his refugee policy, made a u-turn and started accommodating incoming refugees.

With an inclined reference to Nagaland, the central government’s advisory on dealing with refugees from Myanmar has overlooked the core issue of social fabric and sacred feeling of political affiliation that takes place across the international border. Families separated by porous international border transact both social and cultural activities which run along  with exchange of talents by taking advantage of the Free Movement Regime (FMR) that facilitates movement of locals up to 16 km for 14 days on both sides of the border. The FMR therefore renders identification and repatriation of people seeking refuge, as directed by the centre government, nearly impractical. Moreover, depriving nationals of foreign origin of their needs is antithetical to the basic Christian tenets while dealing with strangers, as love and humanity towards the vulnerable is biblical.

Prophets of the Old Testament such as Jeremiah, Zechariah and Malachi reminded us the need to protect the welfare of immigrants and foreign nationals residing with us (or may move to our land) in Jeremiah 22:3, Zechariah 7:10 and Malachi 3:5. While it is admitted that the principles enshrined in the Old Testament may not be adapted unabridged in our dealing with immigrants and refugees, they heralded about God’s unchanging character in defending “the cause of the fatherless and the widows, and loved the foreigners residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18 NIV). God’s constant character is reiterated in Mathew 25:35 NIV saying “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in”.

Laws of the land at times contradict with our established belief and its doctrines. Worse, rejection of one or the other merits condemnation and may even get branded as apostates or anti-nationals. What, however, remains to be fundamental in handling humanitarian crisis is to imaginarily situate ourselves in the same degree of predicament the vulnerable are presented with. The state of their conditions – leaving their family, livestock and every little thing behind, walking over a long distance without security of food and jobs, negotiating with hostile physical and social environments, sleepless nights and day under roofless sky, injuries, diseases and infections – call for immediate humanitarian relief just to provide the most of the basic needs.

New Delhi’s refugee policy on the Northeastern frontier may not align with the stance of the concerned state governments considering its strategic position it enjoys with Myanmar. Any concrete actions against the interest of the Myanmar’s military will boomerang back and will have a counter-strike effect in its dealing with armed groups in the India’s Northeast. New Delhi may as such not openly ask the state governments to welcome the Myanmar nationals fleeing army atrocities. It is thus incumbent upon us to formulate state-specific policy and temporarily welcome the people fleeing violence in our neighbourhood (when conflict escalates). This is in congruous with the internationally acclaimed practice of non-refoulement which India also advocates. Non-refoulement upholds the international obligation in protecting the refugees and asylum seekers from returning them to a country wherein they may be subjected to persecution.

Nevertheless, there exists a limit of their stay in a foreign land. Even prominent biblical figures themselves were refugees once. Israelites were once strangers in the land of Egypt. David fled the violence of King Saul and sought asylum among the Philistines. Jesus was forced to take refuge in Egypt as a child escaping Herod’s jealousy. They all returned to their lands. Hence, accepting the forsaken and vulnerable is biblically grounded, whereas remaining immigrants / refugees forever may not be biblical. Such could have formed the basis of our approach and adopt it as the state policy towards the immigrants and the refugees.

Our moral responsibility towards our neighbouring people fleeing violence is to accept them, make them learn their duties and obligations, skill them to earn a living, educate them to be agents of change and give them time and space to prepare themselves to be leaders and transform our state of existence with humanity and compassion, like Jesus did. In doing so, authoritative roles of the Church and various flourishing NGOs assume significance.

Nukhosa Chüzho

By EMN Updated: Apr 11, 2021 10:58:15 pm