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In honor of World Refugee Day, the following blog has been written by Samir Kalra, Esq., one of my coworkers at the Hindu American Foundation (HAF).  Samir is our Senior Human Rights Fellow based in the Bay Area, CA.  He recently authored the foreword for a book by Dr. Richard Benkin on Bangladesh entitled, A Quiet Case of Ethnic Cleansing: The Murder of Bangladesh’s Hindus. Samir is also a member of the American Society of International Law and the South Asian Bar Association, serves as an Advisor/Contributor at The Interfaith Observer Journal, and is involved with the Indian Subcontinent Partition Documentation Project.

All Refugees are Created Equal

“Refugees have no choice.  You do.”  This powerful message on World Refugee Day, celebrated annually on June 20, succinctly encapsulates the predicament facing millions of people uprooted from their homes as a result of violence and persecution.  It further underscores the helplessness and vulnerability of refugee populations, while simultaneously calling on the global community to actively advocate on their behalf.

The United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees define a refugee as “any person who is outside their country of origin and unable or unwilling to return there or to avail themselves of its protection, on account of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion.”   Under the Convention’s provisions, refugees are accorded certain fundamental rights, as well as obligations towards their host countries.  Essential to the Convention is the concept of non-refoulment, which provides that a refugee should not be forcibly returned to his/her country of origin if faced with a serious threat to life or freedom.

Unfortunately, many of the world’s nations are still not party to the Convention and are thus not legally bound by its provisions.  Nevertheless, all countries should be required to adhere to the tenets of the Convention, or at least the non-refoulment clause, based on universally accepted norms of international law.

Equally, if not more problematic, is the situation facing Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).  IDPs are persons forced to flee their homes as a result of armed conflict, violence, or human rights violations, but have not crossed an international boundary.  Their status is particularly precarious, considering they still reside within the confines of the country responsible for their displacement.  The matter is further complicated by issues of national sovereignty, which often prevent IDPs from receiving the necessary protection and humanitarian assistance they require.

In addition to refugees and IDPs, stateless persons constitute a third, rather unique category of concern.  According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): “Stateless persons do not have a recognized nationality and do not belong to any country.  Statelessness situations are usually caused by discrimination against certain groups. Their lack of identification — a citizenship certificate — can exclude them from access to important government services, including health care, education or employment.”  The current international legal framework, however, is ineffective in addressing the specific needs of stateless persons.

Refugees, IDPs, and stateless persons collectively constitute more than 42 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced from their homes.  Given the sheer magnitude of this figure, it is understandable that certain refugee crises garner greater attention and resources from the international community than others.  That being said, simply ignoring those situations we deem to be of less importance would be unconscionable.

One such case that we cannot continue to overlook is the plight facing Hindu refugees from Pakistan.  Although little is generally known about this emerging problem, it has the potential to develop into a protracted refugee crisis and humanitarian disaster.

Since the 1990s, there has been a steady exodus of Hindus from Pakistan, but the process has rapidly accelerated in recent years, with thousands of Hindus crossing the border into India.  Every month, hundreds of Hindu families are desperate to enter India, in an effort to escape systematic religious oppression, institutional discrimination, and arbitrary violence.  In particular, the abductions and forced conversions of young Hindu girls has left the Hindu community in a dire state of helplessness.  According to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), 20 – 25 Hindu girls are kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam every month in Pakistan, some as young as three or four years old.  Often, after being kidnapped, these girls are raped, sold off, forcibly married, or thrown into prostitution.

The Human Rights Law Network estimates that there are approximately 115,000 Pakistani Hindus now living in India, the majority of whom have not been recognized as refugees nor accorded legal status by the Indian government.  Without any formal legal status, many of the refugees live in squalid makeshift camps scattered across the country and are unable to access government benefits.  Moreover, the number of Pakistani Hindu refugees is likely to significantly increase in the coming months as conditions continue to deteriorate for religious minorities in Pakistan.

Similarly, the mass exodus of Hindus from Bangladesh over the past several decades has largely gone unnoticed by much of the world.  During Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Independence from Pakistan, for instance, millions of Hindu civilians were forced to flee to India as a result of a genocidal campaign of violence conducted by Pakistan’s military.  In addition, according to Global Human Rights Defence, more than 500,000 Hindus sought refuge in India in 2001 following large scale violence orchestrated by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its Islamist allies.  And Bangladeshi Hindus continue to migrate to India as a result of ongoing persecution.  While most of the initial refugees were eventually legalized in India, many of the recent arrivals have not been granted legal status and consequently, live on the margins of Indian society.

Apart from the aforementioned examples, the longstanding internal displacement of the Kashmiri Hindu population (known as Pandits) in India has received insufficient attention.

Between 1989 and 1991, a brutal Islamist terrorist campaign supported and funded by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency, ethnically cleansed nearly 400,000 Kashmiri Hindus from their ancestral homes in the Kashmir Valley.  The displaced Hindus fled to other parts of India, and thousands took shelter in temporary refugee camps in the cities of New Delhi and Jammu.  Unable to safely return to their homes, the status of these IDPs remains unresolved more than twenty years later.

And finally in Malaysia, a country hailed as a modern Muslim democracy, nearly 200,000 ethnic Indians have been denied citizenship by the government, despite having roots in Malaysia for several generations.  Rendered virtually stateless, these individuals lack birth certificates and identity documents, resulting in a denial of basic rights to education, healthcare, jobs, driving licenses, and formal marriages.

As we commemorate World Refugee Day, it is imperative that we work actively on behalf of all refugees, IDPs, and stateless persons, regardless of the location or identity of the victims.  We must further remember our responsibility to provide a voice to those internally and externally displaced persons suffering in silence and work towards finding durable solutions and strengthening legal protections.  Without the collective efforts of the international community and all interested parties, the fate of refugees will remain in peril.

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