In the light of India’s plan to deport illegal Rohingya refugee, Author discusses and critically analyses India’s International legal obligation in the background of India’s constitutional and statutory provisions keeping in mind the State’s national security concern. Parallel he also suggests an idea of comprehensive legislation on refugee in India

 A kind of political intellectual hustle and bustle has been started in the world over India’s plan to deport all Rohingya immigrants who are living in different parts of India illegally or without having any valid refugee card. On August 9, 2017, the Indian minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, told the parliament that “the government has issued detailed instructions for deportation of illegal foreign nationals including Rohingyas,” noting that there were around “40,000 Rohingyas living illegally in the country.”  Reacting to this, South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly said that “India has a long record of helping vulnerable populations fleeing from neighboring countries, including Sri Lankans, Afghans, and Tibetans,” and thereby Indian authorities should abide by India’s international legal obligations and not forcibly return any Rohingya to Burma (Myanmar) without first fairly evaluating their claims as refugees.”  The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India also issued the notice to Central Government after taking suo motu cognizance and sought a detailed report within four weeks on government’s plan to deport about 40,000 illegal Rohingya immigrants.  NHRC also contended that Indian judiciary has given wide protection to the refugees, even unregistered, under the broad ambit of Article 21 of the Constitution of India. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has also shown his concern about India's plans to deport Rohingya refugees from Myanmar underlining that refugees should not be returned to countries where they fear persecution once they are registered.

India’s Legal obligation under International law

It is true that India is not a party to 1951 Convention on Refugees and also the 1967 Protocol. But this does not preclude and keep India out of International and domestic legal obligation. As far as International legal obligation is concerned, notwithstanding India is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention principle of customary international law does apply to India in so far as it is consistent with existing municipal law of the Country or if there is a void in the municipal law.  Principle of Non-refoulement has become a well-recognized part of customary international law, thus applies to India also. Principle of Non-refoulement says that “No State shall expel or return ('refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.  Principle of Non-refoulement is central to refugee protection that prohibits return of an individual to a country in which he or she may be persecuted. Academic consensus on this point has been of the view that the principle of non-refoulement as articulated in Article 33 is broad in scope, offering expansive protection to refugees and must be construed expansively and without limitation, and as such includes no exceptions for other treaty obligations such as extradition.  The principle of non-refoulement applies to a wide spectrum of people, including those seeking asylum as well as those already granted asylum, regardless of whether the individual entered the host state legally.  Furthermore, non-refoulement is commonly regarded as a right which extends through time, applying to the individual as soon as he arrives and throughout his stay in the country of refuge.  The broad scope and ambit of prohibition of refoulement has been taken to prohibit any act of removal (including rejection, expulsion, deportation, and return) that would place the individual at risk, regardless of the formal description of the act given by the removing state.

On the other hand, the principle of Non-refoulement is also not an absolute principle in the sense that it has two exceptions which have the potential to weaken the principle of non-refoulement and leave refugees vulnerable to violations of underlying human rights. These two exceptions which the receiving state may exercise either “to protect the community (public order)” or “defend national security”.  But it is also true that there is a lack of historical consensus toward exceptions to Non-refoulement. Therefore, if the principle of Non-refoulement does contradict with any provision of the existing domestic legal framework in India, to that extent it ceases to be effective. For instance, when a refugee entered into India without a valid passport or travel documents, he may be arrested by immigration authorities and generally handed over to the police and a FIR is lodged against him under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Passport Act, 1967.

India’s obligation under Municipal Law

The relevant statutes which deal with refugees in India are the Foreigner's Act, 1864, the Registration of Foreigner's Act, 1939, the Foreigner's Act, 1946, the Fugitive Offenders Act, 1881, the Indian Extradition Act, 1903, the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Passport Act, 1967. Though there is no comprehensive legislation in India which governs and regulate refugee problems, but still Indian judiciary by its creative interpretation of Article 21 of the Constitution which guarantees the right to life and liberty to all persons and not merely to citizens. Refugees may not be citizens but they are certainly persons, and hence they are entitled to the provisions of Article 21. The Indian Supreme Court has interpreted the word 'life' in Article 21 to mean not merely an animal life but a dignified life , and hence refugees being persons, are also entitled to the same.  In the same way, rights to equality (Article 14), right to protect in respect of conviction of offences (Article 20). Right to protect against arbitrary arrest (Article 22) and the freedom to practice and propagate their own religion (Article 25) also apply to refugees. It is beyond any doubt that India judiciary has given and protected the number of basic human rights of refugees in India, from right to life, liberty, arbitrary detention, freedom of religion to access to UNHCR office in India where they can get registered with UNHCR. On the other hand, it has also to be noted that SC in Louis De Raedt v. Union of India and Ors,  and S.G. Getter v. The Union of India,  held that Article-21 of the Constitution of India protects the life and personal liberty of all persons including aliens and foreigners happened to be in India. Therefore, refugees as non-citizens cannot be deprived of their rights ‘except according to the procedure established by law’. Therefore, even principle of Non-refoulement and many other Human Rights Principles which are individual centric as referred in UDHR can be circumvented and weakened by way of a legislation in India, and that too India can do even without violating International law as if there is happened to be conflict between municipal law and international law (customary international law) courts must perforce apply national law and give effect to the municipal law. 

Rohingyas: are they threat to State Security

Refugees are no doubt foreign nationals but they are human beings also and before taking any big step, it would well be appropriate and fair for the government to look into every aspect of the situation. It has to be noted that The Rohingyas, who fled to India after violence in the Western Rakhine State of Myanmar, have settled in Jammu, Hyderabad, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi-NCR and Rajasthan. Keeping that in mind, The Home Ministry of India has said that infiltration of (Rohingyas) from the Rakhine state of Myanmar into Indian Territory, especially in recent years, besides being a burden on the limited resources of the country, also aggravates security challenges posed to India.  In a communication to all states, the Union home ministry had said the rise of terrorism in last few decades has become a serious concern for most nations as illegal migrants are able to getting recruited by terrorist organizations. Rohingya refugee as a fear for State security has been noted in 2013 when terrorist attack took place in Bodh Gaya—a blast executed to avenge the killings of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.  In February, 2017 it has been reported that Rohingyas the minority ethnic community were being abetted by outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba  and thereby exploiting radicalization among the Rohingya community, which posed a serious security risk to India. Foreign Minister of Bangladesh AH Mahmood Ali has also shown his concerned about illegal Rohingyas around three to four lakhs staying in Bangladesh and may pose a serious threat to Bangladesh's national security in future. He went on to say that The Rakhine people have got engaged in various misdeeds, including drug smuggling, arms and human trafficking and manufacturing drug on the border.

Plan ahead for refugee including Rohingyas

Refugee in India have been concerned as a matter of policy rather than law where how to deal with the refugee has also been seen as a part of India’s foreign policy especially in the context of Tibetan refugee. In the light of abovementioned facts and legal background, that till today, the country has evolved a practical balance between human and humanitarian obligations on the one hand and security and national interest on the other. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. Keeping that in mind and realizing being a signatory to number of International Human Rights Conventions/Covenants India should legislate a comprehensive law which could uniformly deal with the problems of refugee influx in India and exodus to their original place provided they will not face any king of further persecution thereon and full protection to their life, security and enjoyment will be ensured corresponding to State security will not be compromised.

Abhishek Trivedi

Abhishek Trivedi is pursuing his LL.M. degree in International Law from Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University-an International University established by SAARC Nations, New Delhi. His fields of interest and research in academics are  Public international law, Law of International Organization, Human Rights law, Conflict of laws, commercial arbitration and International Environmental Law

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