Number of Indian asylum seekers rises by 996% in last decade

indica News Bureau-


In a recent report amid the NRC and CAA protests in India, carried out by international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), it was stated that number of Indians claiming asylum abroad has seen a 996% rise in the past 10 years. While most asylum seekers migrate due to unemployment and poor economic prospects, there are many who also try to move put due to an environment of hate created in the country after 2014.

An “asylum seeker”, as defined by the convention, is anyone persecuted on grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) among the 70.8 million people displaced worldwide, 3.5 million are asylum seekers from war-torn regions of Africa and parts of South America. But the number of Indians seeking asylum also form 4,722 in 2008 to 51,796 in 2018.

Sanjay Kumar, a 28-year old resident of India who failed in getting a job abroad and was deported to India told Live Mint that while in his case, he was ripped off by a robber and the agent he booked also cheated him, he found that most people departed with him were out in search of better employment opportunities.

“Ninety-five per cent of Indians detained had a cover story similar to mine. But most of them were like me: forced to go because they couldn’t find a job in India”, he said.

While the study states the figures of asylum-seekers from India, it is pretty hard for many people to believe so. The studies on asylum seekers are also stepped in debates on the extent and authenticity of the “persecution” claimed.

Many also question the figures as they say that India too has hosted over two million refugees, mainly those fleeing Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Tibet.

“It’s not possible to estimate with any degree of accuracy the share of legitimate versus meritless cases. Undoubtedly, there are cases where individuals take advantage of asylum systems to advance personal migration goals they can’t achieve by other means. But in an era of record humanitarian displacement around the globe, it is also important to recognize that there are countless numbers of people who have real, pressing, legitimate protection needs”, says Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communication and public affairs at the US-based Migration Policy Institute.

While it has been known that  during the Khalistani separatist movement in the 1980s, thousands of Sikhs are said to have fled India and claimed asylum in the US and Canada, followed by several other conflicts in India like Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, the Gujarat riots of 2002 and the three-decade insurgency in Kashmir since the 1990s which led to a rise in numbers of asylum seekers.

The 2018 report by HRW cites “Pro-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) vigilantes have committed several acts of violence against religious minorities, marginalized communities and critics of the government”, which may have suddenly shot up the numbers of asylum seekers.

Some of those who fled India to claim asylum have been documented in the international media: a Christian family fleeing Kerala after being attacked by Hindu fundamentalists, one Buta Singh entering the US via the Mexican border to escape police harassment in his home state Punjab, one Ajay Kumar from Haryana with a story of persecution by members of the BJP.

However Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of HRW, says that it is not likely for many people  to leave the country because of such local incidents.  “In terms of electoral democracy, India still functions. It’s possible that some powerful guy beats up a member of an opposition party. But if it is localized personal enmity, people tend to go to other areas in India. They don’t cross seas or snake-infested forests to get to the Mexican border.”

Economic slowdown in India for several quarters and unemployment rates highest in the last 45 years prove Kumar’s observation right. Fast-tracking citizenship for specified minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh living in India under NRC and CAA have also sparked protests  in India,  which may, in future, lead to a rise in number of asylum seekers.

According to the UNHCR database, the US, Canada, UK, Australia and South Korea—developed countries, most of them with a sizeable Indian diaspora—are the preferred destinations for Indian asylum seekers. But as immigration laws across the world become tighter, the ways for Indians wanting to emigrate legally have shrunk.

Indian asylum applicants to Europe, too, showed a sudden uptick during the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, as European countries like Germany, had temporarily opened its borders to refugees. In Germany, the number of Indian refugees went up from 1,834 in 2015 to 3,502 in 2016. In Cyprus, the nearest European landing port for Syrian refugees, it jumped from 90 in 2015 to 202 in 2016.

Ravi Hemadri from the New-Delhi based Development and Justice Initiative, who has studied Indian immigration in the UK, said, “It’s a combination of desperation and fascination with the West. Most of the asylum seekers are young men between 20 and 30, from parts of Punjab and Haryana and, to a lesser extent, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. Whenever I have spoken to them, they say, ‘India mein kya rakha hai (What is there in India)?’ Many want to start a business but can’t work around the corruption”, reported Live Mint

The Union government does not believe there is a problem, in its written replies to questions raised in Parliament, the MEA has maintained, “Government of India believes that asylum-seekers, while applying for asylum to a foreign government, denigrate the system in India to obtain personal gains, despite the fact that India, being a democratic country, provides avenues for everyone to redress their grievances lawfully.”

While there may be few who seek asylum for ‘personal gains’ there are hundreds of people who can prove that they migrated as refugees as the conditions in India were hostile.

A review by the US department of homeland security says over 1,600 of 17,000 Indians secured asylum between 2015-17 in the US. That’s nearly 10% of all Indian applicants.

Live Mint interviewed one such successful asylum seeker is Narengbam Samarjit, owner of Manipur-based SALAI HOLDINGS Pvt. Ltd., a conglomerate with interests across trade, farming, real estate and pharmaceutical sectors.

In 2015, Samarjit ventured into politics and formed the North East India Development Party (NEIDP). Ahead of the 2019 parliamentary election, he turned into a vocal critic of India, claiming that the Union government was violating the special powers granted to Manipur by exercising undue influence in his home state. Although it boosted his public image, none of the candidates NEIDP fielded during the election won.

In June, Samarjit flew out of India on a “business trip”. He surfaced in London in October and declared that he had secured asylum in the UK. Addressing a press conference, Samarjit claimed he was setting up a Manipur “government-in-exile” and would work to secure the constitutional rights of his home state.

The Union government moved swiftly. His bank accounts were frozen, a case of “waging war against the state” was registered against him, and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over the case within days. Both NEIDP and SALAI HOLDINGS removed him from the post of president.

In a phone interview with Live Mint from the UK, Samarjit claimed he had received several threats on the phone and in writing after he started criticizing the Indian government earlier this year. “The NIA had also started harassing me. They said that armed separatist groups were funding my campaign. In fact, I had filed police complaints because those groups had demanded money off me. I had also requested security guards but the government said they didn’t have enough personnel. I was afraid of being assassinated,” says Samarjit. Meghachandra Singh, superintendent of police in West Imphal, denied his claims.

Applying for asylum has become increasingly difficult in recent years as countries have made border security tighter. Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election by lobbying for the creation of “a great wall” on the Mexican border to keep out immigrants. A 2018 budget review by the European Union announced a budget of €34.9 billion (around ₹279,000 crore now) for border management and deployment of an additional 10,000 personnel around European borders. Amnesty International has described Australia’s policy towards migrants and asylum seekers as a “calculated system of neglect and cruelty”.

Many people die while trying to sneak into the UK, hiding in the freezer compartments of lorries, in an effort to avoid British border guards.

Even if one applies for asylum, officials at detention centers have been known to violate human rights. Earlier this year, a desperate Ajay Kumar wass reported to have gone on a hunger strike with three others at the El Paso detainee processing center in the US, protesting against conditions at the facility.

While hunger strikes are a common form of protest among detainees in the US, this case received international attention after a visiting doctor at the facility filed an affidavit saying Ajay Kumar was receiving the “worst medical care I have seen in my 10 years of practice”. In October, he was released on bail. The fate of his application is not known.

There are already fears that the proposed National Register of Citizens could see an increase in the number of asylum seekers. “It’s what happened to the Rohingya in Myanmar,” says Hemadri.