A closer look at refugee integration in India

Afghan Refugees in India
Afghan refugees in India

by Ujjwal Krishna 19 February 2020

Widespread protests against India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, have brought refugees front and centre in the national discourse. However, the state of the evidence on refugees and their integration in India remains sketchy at best.


At a geopolitical level, India has maintained a restrained stance with respect to refugees. While it currently hosts more than 200,000 refugees, the laws which govern them depend mostly on its bilateral relationship with their countries of origin (Bang 2012)[i]. The precise tally of the number of refugees India hosts varies across data sources, with the World Bank’s statistics on refugee population by country or territory of asylum indicating 197,122 refugees in India as of 2017[ii]. This figure is contrasted against a record high across a 27-year timeframe (1990-2017) of 262,798 refugees in 1993. UNHCR’s database holds that India hosts 209,022 people termed as ‘population of concern’ as of September 2018[iii]. Comparatively higher Refugee International estimates suggest that India hosts around 330,000 refugees (Bhattacharjee 2008)[iv]. A bulk of the variation in these numbers can be attributed to ‘a combination of porous borders, desire for anonymity, and high mobility in South Asia, coupled with a lack of a domestic or regional refugee regulatory framework requiring record-keeping of such individuals’ (Field et al. 2017)[v].

Despite its flexibility with respect to its treatment of refugees (Chaudhary 2004)[vi], India lacks a national refugee law specifying the rights, and governing the treatment, of refugees (Anantachari 2001)[vii]. India refused to ratify the United Nations’ Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951 (also known as the 1951 Geneva Convention) along with the Protocol of 1967, ‘containing international obligations to protect refugees, including non­refoulement, non­expulsion or non­extradition and the minimum standard of treatment’ (Bhattacharjee 2008)[viii]. Even so, through conventions such as the 1948 Universal Human Rights Declaration, India has international humanitarian obligations which requires it to respect human rights (Balakrishnan 2018)[ix]. Hence, the ‘governance of refugees comes under the Foreigners Act, 1946, and the Citizenship Act, 1955, and refugees de facto stand in violation of the Passports Act, 1967. [Further], under the Foreigners Act, a ‘refugee’ is a ‘foreigner’ – an alien who is on Indian soil either temporarily or permanently (ibid). Since ‘these Acts do not distinguish refugees fleeing persecution from other foreigners, they apply to all non-citizens equally’ (HRLN 2007)[x].

Moreover, the ‘Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003 defines all non-citizens who entered India without a visa as ‘illegal migrants’ (Xavier and Sharma 2015)[xi]. Owing to the lack of legislation specifically catering to refugees, India has adopted an ad hoc approach to different refugee influxes, with the status of refugees being governed chiefly by political and administrative decisions rather than any codified model of conduct (HRLN 2007)[xii]. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, further problematised the status of refugees in India by making illegal migrants from the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian, and Christian communities, hailing from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, eligible for citizenship (PRS 2019)[xiii]. The principle of preferential treatment to specific categories of refugees on the basis of a combination of religion and country of origin sparked widespread protests across India. The Act has been widely criticised for attempting to make religion an eligibility criterion for Indian citizenship, which could fundamentally alter the secular character of the constitution. At the same time, calls to preserve the ethnic character of specific regions such as Assam have also arisen, which certain protesters feel would be an outcome of the Act. While the substance and ideological motivations of protesters on either side of the political spectrum have received much attention in popular media and public discourse, in the din of accusations and retaliations, an important issue remains largely unaddressed. The state of refugees and their integration across India seems to remain a largely irrelevant issue, even as political battles over them rage on.

India’s track record on refugee intake

In sum, India’s approach towards accepting and integrating refugees is exemplified by what has been described variously as ‘tolerance and goodwill’ (Sen 2003), and ‘grudging tolerance’ (Ramzy 2015)[xiv]. Observers and researchers have attributed this stance to India’s distrust of the international refugee process stemming from the perception of Indian policymakers that the country has received disproportionately less recognition for its intake of refugees (ibid). Arguably, the lack of social pressure exerted on the government is also lacking due to the widely prevalent perception of refugees as ‘suspect’ and a ‘burden’. Other interpretations of India’s lack of willingness to ratify the 1951 Geneva Convention include its view that it ‘was very Euro­centric and India viewed it and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) as instruments of the Cold War’ (Bhattacharjee 2008)[xv], despite not refusing the UNHCR’s assistance at different junctures (ibid). While this may be a subjective and contestable proposition, it is well-acknowledged that India is among the most prominent receivers of refugees in the world. Specific refugee populations in India include Sri Lankans, Tibetans, Chin, and other minorities from Myanmar (including Rohingya), Bhutan, Afghanistan, an unspecified but sizeable number of Hindus from Bangladesh, a number of Nepalese refugees who fled the Maoist insurgency, and several from other countries (Benoit 2004)[xvi].

While India has long been a safe haven in a volatile region, home to more than 200,000 refugees and asylum seekers, and even as it ‘has a very strong tradition of accepting refugees, … it’s more a charity-based approach than a rights-based one’ (Field et al. 2017)[xvii]. This is ‘problematic’ since ‘the legal precariousness means the majority of refugees head for cities, where they can be anonymous and find work, … [however] they are also more vulnerable there, and can struggle to access basic services’ (ibid). India continues to host the largest urban refugee population in the South Asia region, comprising 15,000 people, mainly from Afghanistan (UNHCR 2007)[xviii]. Even as UNHCR officials opine that ‘India is quite advanced in refugee protection as compared to many signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, … [and that] even when refugee protection comes into odds with national security, India has managed to provide social security, education and medical security’ (Barstch 2013 in ORF 2013)[xix], there remains limited evidence on the integration of refugees in India.

Observers have noted that Indian law ‘fails to appreciate the special circumstances under which a refugee leaves his or her country of origin’, … [and that the] ‘absence of a special law on protection, rights and entitlements of refugees has resulted in the denial of basic protection to the large number of refugees’, …


‘runs against the spirit of India’s human rights commitment under the international law and its own Constitution’ (Bhattacharjee 2018)[xx]. The ad hoc nature of the Indian Government’s approach to refugees has ‘led to varying treatment of different refugee groups’ (HRLN 2007)[xxi], in that ‘some groups are granted a full range of benefits including legal residence and the ability to be legally employed, whilst others are criminalized and denied access to basic social resources’ (ibid). These views on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum are based on the observers’ broad worldviews and interpretation of laws concerning refugees in India and are not necessarily informed by an understanding of the drivers of refugee integration.

Integration in cities

The World Economic Forum’s report on migration and its impact on cities (WEF 2015)[xxii] identifies Pune and Surat as the Indian cities most affected by migration and analyses them among the other identified cities across the world with respect to their housing, education, healthcare, roads and transport, sanitation and waste management, employment opportunities and the labour market, urban planning, utilities, and integration and social cohesion. However, the methodology employed is arbitrary with respect to the consistency of the categories analysed across the cross-country evidence base and an immediate casualty is the ‘integration and social cohesion’ category which, while addressed briefly for Surat, is entirely omitted for Pune. For Surat, it holds different cultural backgrounds of migrants, as well as the sporadic occurrence of conflict between migrants and the local population as a result of ‘higher inequity due to skill constraints among these migrants’. Other categories such as education, housing and healthcare are explored as distinct from integration and social cohesion and the report does not adequately explore the interlinkages and interdependencies between the categories. In other words, it does not treat education, healthcare, infrastructure, sanitation and employment, among other categories, as intrinsic to an effective analysis of integration and therefore commits a conceptual error which betrays a technocratic tendency for hasty and problematic categorisation. This oversight is indicative of the relatively secondary status accorded to integration as a concept in India-specific research on migrants and refugees. Charles and Guna (2007)[xxiii] offer a relatively wider range of ‘influencers’ of migrants in cities, suggesting a change in perception, community engagement, policy reforms, urban planning and leadership, as the key to ‘successful integration of migrants in cities’.

With respect to the integration of refugees in urban India, CCS (2009)[xxiv] makes reference to the ‘extreme’ difficulty in the integration of Afghan, Burmese and Tibetan refugees in Delhi owing to ‘differences in language and culture’, as well as in their ‘physical attributes’ and ‘religion’ in contrast to Delhi’s local population. Moreover, it holds the furtherance of tension between the ‘local poor’ and refugees owing to a ‘general lack of resources in India’, which creates a tendency to view refugees as competition for these scare resources, creating a discriminatory environment. Specific instances of such discrimination are enumerated as ‘evictions from accommodations, rape cases or sexual abuses’, as well as a difficulty in conflict resolution between the local population and refugees owing to ‘language barriers’. Despite a relatively broader interpretation of integration vis-à-vis WEF (2015), this study includes accommodation, livelihoods, education and healthcare as categories extrinsic to integration. HRLN (2007)[xxv] addresses limited integration-related questions by analysing the ‘socio-economic conditions’ of Tibetan, Sri Lankan, Bhutanese, Hindu Pakistani, Burmese, Palestinian and Afghan refugees, however not directly or with adequate rigour.

A structured view of integration

Through their review of attempted definitions of ‘integration’ as a term, Ager and Strang (2008)[xxvi] developed a conceptual framework that provides ‘the most rounded basis from which an empirical study of integration can flow’ (SRC 2010)[xxvii]. In an attempt to arrive at an operational definition of the concept, this conceptual framework was developed ‘which suggests ten core domains reflecting normative understandings of integration, and provides a potential structure for analysis of relevant outcomes, … [serving] as ‘middle-range theory’, [that seeks] to provide a coherent conceptual structure for considering, from a normative perspective, what constitutes the key components of integration’ (ibid). The authors also note ‘a need for further empirical examination and testing of not only the framework’s utility, but also what this tells us about refugee integration’ (ibid). This is especially necessary in order to adapt this framework to a developing country context wherein it may be necessary to include certain additional features in order to arrive at a more appropriate theoretical approach. The framework contains key ‘domains’ of integration, including employment, housing, education, health; social connection within and between groups within the community; the structural barriers to such connection related to language, culture and the local environment; and the assumptions and practice regarding citizenship and rights.

These domains provide a useful frame to gauge the existing evidence on refugee integration in India. In interviews (Field et al. 2017)[xxviii] with both male and female refugees – across the Afghan and Rohingya communities of Delhi – a high value was placed on the welfare of the family unit and the importance of education for children. However, the state of their children’s poor schooling experiences was perceived by the refugee communities as a skills loss for the community. Refugees in Delhi have faced difficulties enrolling in higher education, either for lack of documentation that universities are willing to accept, or prohibitively high fees, as refugees are regarded as ‘foreign’ students. Furthermore, many of their previous qualifications do not translate to the requisite jobs or as credits at Indian institutes, and it is too expensive to train again or start from scratch (ibid).

Technically, registered asylum seekers and refugees have equal access to government services, such as critical healthcare. Despite entitlements to access many public services, a key difficulty facing refugees and UNHCR revolves around proving that entitlement in the wake of the emergence of a new system of identification in the last few years – the Aadhaar card (Field et al. 2017)[xxix]. Receiving medical attention at government hospitals, however, is sometimes difficult due to the lack of interpreters to communicate symptoms, diagnosis and treatment options (CCS 2009)[xxx]. Moreover, landlord-tenant relations are hindered by intolerance of the landlords and many language and cultural barriers. There have been times when refugees have been evicted without legitimate good cause, which might possibly be due to complaints made by landlords about cultural practices different from their own (ibid). Even as urban refugee communities have formed community groups for solidarity and social work, they continue to feel alienated from Indians, both culturally and linguistically.

While concerns over state capacity to provide basic services to refugee communities have been raised, such as by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal (Scroll 2019)[xxxi], these are mostly couched in a ‘provide for our own first’ fervour, without necessarily overtly recognising the dire state of refugees already residing in the country. While such sentiments from politicians could be indirectly indicative of an appreciation of the state of refugees in India, this may be too generous an interpretation. There is a rising anti-Muslim, Hindu nationalist sentiment in India, which is creating rhetorical slippage at a governmental level between the categories of refugee, migrant, and illegal immigrant, as these terms are often used interchangeably in national rhetoric (Field et al. 2017)[xxxii], while selectively characterising Muslim refugee groups as a threat to national security. Despite the acquisition of an Indian citizenship, some Pakistani Hindus report ongoing problems with accessing the associated benefits including ration cards and other government schemes (HRLN 2007)[xxxiii]. This suggests that selectively granting citizenship to handpicked refugees may not necessarily improve their stock. Far greater attention needs to be paid to building a robust evidence base on refugee integration in India to enable policymakers and legislators to make informed decisions, without falling prey to the irresistible lure of blindly pandering to majoritarian sentiments, and potentially damaging the social fabric of the Indian state irreversibly.

[i] Bang, S. (2012). The Status of Refugee in India: Need for a Domestic Legislation for Protection of their Human Rights. Asia Pacific Journal of Management & Entrepreneurship Research 1, 21–31.

[ii] World Bank (2017). Refugee population by country or territory of asylum. Washington, DC: The World Bank Group.

[iii] UNHCR (2018). What is a Refugee?. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

[iv] Bhattacharjee, S. (2008). India Needs a Refugee Law. Economic & Political Weekly.

[v] Field, J., Tiwari, A.D., Mookherjee, Y. (2017). Urban refugees in Delhi: Identity, entitlements and well-being. International Institute for Environment and Development. Working Paper.

[vi] Chaudhary, O.N. (2004). Turning Back: An Assessment of Non­Refoulement under Indian Law. Economic & Political Weekly. 39 (24), p 3257.

[vii] Ananthachari, T. (2001). Refugees in India: Legal Framework, Law Enforcement and Security. Indian Society of International Law Yearbook on International Humanitarian and Refugee Law.

[viii] Bhattacharjee, S. (2008).

[ix] Balakrishnan, V. (2018). Citizens of the Camp: The Political Society and Citizenship of Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees in Tamil Nadu, India. Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.

[x] Human Rights Law Network (2007). Report of Refugee Populations in India.

[xi] Xavier, J., Sharma, A. (2015). Legal Rights of Refugees in India. New Delhi: Indian Social Institute, Jesuit Refugee Service.

[xii] Human Rights Law Network (2007).

[xiii] PRS Legislative Research (2019). The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019.

[xiv] Ramzy, A. (2015). China and India Are Sitting Out Refugee Crisis. The Wall Street Journal.

[xv] Bhattacharjee, S. (2008). India Needs a Refugee Law. Economic & Political Weekly.

[xvi] Benoit, F. (2004). India: A National Refugee Law Would Equalise Protection. Refugee International Policy Recommendation.

[xvii] Field, J., Tiwari, A.D., Mookherjee, Y. (2017). Urban refugees in Delhi: Identity, entitlements and well-being. International Institute for Environment and Development. Working Paper.

[xviii] UNHCR (2007). UNHCR 2007 Global Appeal: South Asia. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

[xix] ORF (2013). India much advanced in refugee protection: UNHCR CoM. Observer Research Foundation.

[xx] Bhattacharjee, S. (2008). India Needs a Refugee Law. Economic & Political Weekly.

[xxi] Human Rights Law Network (2007). Report of Refugee Populations in India.

[xxii] WEF (2015). Migration and Its Impact on Cities. World Economic Forum.

[xxiii] Charles, A., Guna, D. (2017). We need to get better at integrating migrants into our cities. Here’s how. World Economic Forum.

[xxiv] CCS (2009). Refugees in Delhi. Centre for Civil Society.

[xxv] Human Rights Law Network (2007). Report of Refugee Populations in India.

[xxvi] Ager, A., Strang, A. (2008). Understanding Integration: A Conceptual Framework, Journal of Refugee Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 166–191.

[xxvii] Scottish Refugee Council (2010). Integration Literature Review.

[xxviii] Field, J., Tiwari, A.D., Mookherjee, Y. (2017). Urban refugees in Delhi: Identity, entitlements and well-being. International Institute for Environment and Development. Working Paper.

[xxix] Field, J., Tiwari, A.D., Mookherjee, Y. (2017).

[xxx] CCS (2009). Refugees in Delhi. Centre for Civil Society.

[xxxi] Scroll (2019). ‘Where are the homes and jobs for refugees who will apply for citizenship?’ asks Arvind Kejriwal.

[xxxii] Field, J., Tiwari, A.D., Mookherjee, Y. (2017).

[xxxiii] Human Rights Law Network (2007). Report of Refugee Populations in India.