There are some refugee issue that have more or less solved themselves through sheer passage of time. indu, Muslim and Sikh refugees created by Partition have had to come to terms with their displacement. Refugees who fled Burma in the 1960s to India and Nepal have likewise become reconciled with their new situations, and this is true also of the Indian Tamil repatriates. The Tibetan refugees, while many still yearn to return to the high plateau, are well settled and economically secure.
However, there are millions of South Asians who have crossed frontiers whose presence is problematic to host countries and can invite instability in their place of refuge. As geographically the largest and most central country of South Asia, India has played host to most refugees and migrants. According to Partha Ghosh, Director of the Indian Council of Social Science Research in New Delhi, post-Partition India has taken in 15 million people migrants from its neighbours. These have come from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma, and the number does not include the long-term economic migrants from Nepal.
The most serious problem for the Indian state, doubtless, are the Bangladeshi settlers who have ranged far and wide within India, building up significant enclaves in Bombay and Delhi, and inhabiting large tracts of the Brahmaputra Valley. The 1981 Indian census revealed that in eight border districts of West Bengal, the population grew by over 30 percent between 1971 and 1981, compared to an average 20 percent elsewhere. The population of one northern town leapt from a mere 10,000 to 150,000.
Indian census estimates put the number of Bangladeshis who have migrated to India at 1.7 million between 1961-71 and 0.6 million in the following decade, the latter figure not including another 0.6 million said to have entered Assam during the same period. The government of India claims that 78,441 were intercepted at the border between 1992-1994.
While humanitarian concern for this migrant population is most proper, there is no doubt that the presence of a large number of foreigners has the ability to queer the pitch of politics in the host country, particularly when political groupings try to take short-term mileage through electoral rolls. Chauvinistic groups can manipulate public perception and generate a backlash against foreigners, as has happened with the Bangladeshis, as also with Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in South India.
In Nepal, nearly a hundred thousand Lhotshampa refugees who fled Bhutan for fear of persecution have been accommodated in camps run by UNHCR. Nepal also hosts about 15,000 Tibetan refugees and has provided shelter to a small number of Afghan refugees.
It is Pakistan which hosts the largest single block of refugees, however. There were some 3.3 million refugees from Afghanistan in the country in 1990, and UNHCR has spent more than USD 1 billion since 1980 on its Pakistan programme alone. By the beginning of 1997, 2.6 million Afghans had returned (another 1.3 million from Iran) but not before turning around the economy and ecology of northern Pakistan.
Looking at the larger questions of migration and the political dislocation that they can cause, the province of Sindh alone has a migrant population of 2.5 million, of Bengali origin, who arrived in the 1980s from Bangladesh. These migrants are seen as a political menace and political risk by the state.
Stranded Pakistanis, better known as Biharis, are languishing in 66 camps scattered all over Bangladesh, in conditions of squalour and hopelessness. Bangladesh will have nothing to do with this population and Pakistan has dragged its feet in taking in the very people considered ´loyal´ to it in the 1971 liberation war. Altogether 1.6 million Biharis have been relocated to Pakistan, but despite commitments made and agreements signed, another 2.4 million (a total of 41,000 families) remain in Bangladesh.
According to authorities in Sri Lanka who handle rehabilitation, in February 1997 the country had about 756,000 displaced people, most of them Tamil, and many who have been displaced several times over. About a hundred thousand are thought to be in refugee camps and elsewhere in South India, while another hundred thousand have migrated to the West.
The problems of migrants and refugees, then, are twofold. On the one hand is the societal instability that emerges when an alien population enters an area, for reasons economic or political. The other is the question related to human rights – and the very right to life – of the migrants and refugees as human beings.
Since there is agreement that political stability is a prerequisite for economic advancement, the question of migrants and refugees is critically important if the Subcontinent is to look forward to a brighter quality of life for its citizens. For, the existence of disgruntled host populations and fearful ´guests´ will constantly undermine movement towards economic stability.
Obviously, the solution is for countries not to create economic and political conditions which induce the mass outflow of populations. Such an idealised scenario will take time to materialise. In the meantime, it is important for governments and peoples of all South Asian countries to exhibit concern for the well-being of refugees and migrants who suffer and languish within each of their borders. The backlash against the foreigner must stop. The SAARC organisation itself must show some initiative in this regard, perhaps by taking up the recommendation made by the Kathmandu-based South Asia Forum for Human Rights for a regional protocol or charter for the protection of refugees, migrants and stateless persons.
While the problem of economic migrants and political refugees is hardly unique to South Asia, the Subcontinent stands out as a region that has been unable to find a solution to it. This has resulted in acrimony between neighbours who are already burdened with enough socio-economic problems of their own – not to forget the suffering of the displaced people and migrants themselves.