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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 14, March 27, 2010

State Response to Refugees in South Asia

Saturday 27 March 2010, by C. Lalruatfeli



Exile and Belonging: Refugees and State Policy in South Asia by Pia Oberoi; Oxford University Press, New Delhi; 2006.

Exile and Belonging: Refugees and State Policy in South Asia deals with the state response to refugees in South Asia. It focuses on the responses of the four major South Asian states. The author, Pia Oberoi, examines the changing relationship between South Asian states and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She picks up six major cases of forced migration in the region for in-depth analysis. The author needs to be complimented for drawing her information from a wide and impressive array of sources ranging from journals and media reports to monographs, official reports and documents, including even unpublished articles. The personal interviews that she managed to conduct with various leaders of the South Asian states as well as with the United Nations officials on the issue of refugees in South Asia add further credence to her work.

Oberoi shows how the case of partition refugees in South Asia has clearly emerged as one of the most complex as well as one of the largest movements of refugees in world history. She draws our attention to some of the limitations at the level of state response to refugees in South Asia by pointing out that none of the states has acceded to the 1951 UN Convention as well as the 1967 Protocol on the ground that the UNHCR is a Eurocentric institution with cold war origins. They prefer instead to conduct ad-hoc agreements with the UNHCR. According to the Indian Joint Secretary (UN Division), the response of the Indian state has been far more generous towards refugees than what is required by the 1951 Convention. The South Asian states follow their own specific policies of dealing with refugees within their territories. The refugee policy in South Asia is determined by the cultural, religious and ethnic ties that the different states share with each other. It is also influenced by its political interest, foreign policy, nation-building and ideologies. Pia Oberoi argues that refugees seek shelter on the basis of the similarity of kinship rather than from such circumstances that lead to their flight as mentioned in the UN Refugee Protection Regime.

The book under review takes the position that even though the South Asian states do not have any refugee-specific laws and have not ratified the 1951 convention, their track record in dealing with refugees has been fairly good. They have been both generous and hospitable to the refugees. Besides providing the basic needs like food, clothing, shelter etc, these states also provide them loans, agricultural lands, employment etc. so that these people can support and stand on their own feet. The author also highlights the significant role played by the UNHCR in the protection of refugees in South Asia. The relationship between the UNHCR and the various South Asian states have, however, remained far from smooth and controversies over how to deal with refugees have often assumed complex dimensions between the two. The closure of the UNHCR Branch office in New Delhi in 1975 was due to India’s unhappiness on the entry of China into the UN. There are also times when the relations between the host state and the state from where refugees come are seriously effected. The relations between China and India significantly deteriorated when India had granted asylum to Dalai Lama and other Tibetan refugees. This is one of the reasons behind the war between India and China.


The granting of refugee status has both positive as well as negative impact on the host state. Poor countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh receive large amounts of money or aid assistance from the UN as well as other Western countries. Very often, the refugee communities are manipulated for building insurgencies in neighbouring territory. It also leads to negative impacts like deforestation, water resources depletion, drug trafficking, smuggling etc. in the host state. Pia Oberoi also argues that the South Asian states have also granted asylum to refugees to develop a good image at the international level. Their refugee policy is influenced by their foreign policy and political self-interest. India intervened in the civil war in Sri Lanka as she did not want Pakistan or the US to get involved in Sri Lankan problem. The South Asian states have worked together with the UNHCR in addressing refugee issues, benefiting the concerned states. They usually follow the policy of non-refoulment, but at times due to undue pressure from the UNHCR and NGOs, the states are often forced to alter their intended course of action. There have been occasions when the UNHCR has accused them of not being fair or not treating refugees well. In the absence of specific municipal legal provisions, the constitutional and legal order also play important role in transmitting societal and transnational norms related to refugee protection. The author also argues that in South Asia, refugee groups often seek asylum in a known location, one where they share same religion, culture, language etc. The South Asian states tend to look upon a refugee as someone whom the society and state in the region must protect as an obligation. The host state feels that they have an entitlement to claim initial entry and refuge on its territory. The South Asian states have granted asylum and relief to the refugees in mass movements and have generally respected the fundamental principle of non-refoulment.

In this book, the author says that the South Asian states have dealt with refugees in accordance with their own policy frameworks. Though they have not yet enacted any laws or principles regarding refugees, they still manage to protect and take care of them in such a manner that the leaders of these states claim that their treatment of refugees is much better than what has been written down in the 1951 Convention. She also suggests that South Asian states need to construct a framework of refugee law. The author believes that interaction with the states from where the refugees arrive as well as with the international refugee regime embodied in the UNHCR may further help in evolving a national and regional framework to address the issue of refugees in the region. Pia Oberoi further argues that the standards of refugee protection are declining in the international sphere and with the weakening of political expedience of granting protection to refugees, the principle of non-refoulment is increasingly under threat. She says the states construct their policies in response to their interests which can be changed potentially. The author suggests that the South Asian states must ensure that they continue with and indeed enhance the protection of refugees in accordance with international norms to help prevent harmful impacts on the refugees who seek protection in these states.

This book is a must read for anyone interested in refugee issues in South Asia, as it is rich in information and makes for an interesting read. What sets this book apart is not only its comprehensive treatment of the refugee question in the region, but also its narrative style of writing.

The reviwer is a Research Scholar, Political Science Department, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

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