Refugees without borders

States, Citizens and Outsiders: The Uprooted Peoples of South Asia

edited by Tapan Bose and Rita Manchanda

South Asia Forum for Human Rights.

Kathmandu, 1997

pp 380. INR/NPR 550

Our brand of nationalism accepts borders as sacrosanct, yet these very borders work against settlement patterns in the region.

The struggle for equity and justice is a perennial struggle for all minorities. In so far as South Asia is concerned, the contributors to States, Citizens and Outsiders: The Uprooted Peoples of South Asia predict that it will remain so if the existing process of state formation continues. In their introduction, the editors write that the 'history of these post-partition states of South Asia has been one of consolidating majoritarian elites producing persecuted minorities, of citizenship giving rise to statelessness, of borders resulting in illegal but not unnatural cross-border movements and of development policies uprooting millions".

This volume explores the processes by which South Asian states create refugees and migrants and then reduce them to hapless political pawns. The existing international protection regime is barely able to scratch the surface of the problem. What is lost is not only human lives but also human dignity.

The book begins with a chapter by Barun De, the doyen of Indian meta-history, who traces the history of population movements from Afghanistan to Burma and Xinjiang to Sri Lanka. This region has witnessed uninterrupted population shifts over centuries. At times it took the form of agricultural shifts, and at other times it was labour movements, movement for trade and even pilgrimage. But all such movements were stymied when Eurocentric concepts of refugees and migrants were imposed on the region.

The  concept  of nation-state brought new forms of nationality, "each with a boundary". In the 19th and 20th centuries, uncharted terrains in Asia, Africa and Latin America were drawn into Eurocentric cartography. Borders became crucial and divisions were created between those who belonged and those who did not. In recent years the problem has been compounded by the growth of new forms of nationalism leading to the militarisation of state power, particularly in peripheral areas. This has contributed to the view that refugees "threatened borders" when actually their own persons were being threatened by state power.

These arguments are pushed further by Tapan Bose, who traces the birth of the concept of refugees to the genesis of territorial nation-states in 14th-century Europe. That is why the definition of refugees still has a European bias. The enterprise of nation-building adopted by South Asia also has its roots in Europe, and in a multi-ethnic region such a process has created ethno-nationalism leading to ethnic and religious problems. This has exacerbated the problems between those who were thought to belong and those who were not, resulting in the making of "refugees". In exploring ways by which refugees could have a more equitable life, Bose says that all the countries in the region should be made to come together and develop a uniform refugee law more humane than what exists today.

Ranabir Samaddar explores the possibility of a civil rights agenda for refugees. He contends that the states of South Asia tries to differentiate between political and economic migrants with the former being recognised as refugees. In the South Asian context such facile divisions are not possible since both groups are equally persecuted. Economic migrants are often victims of political persecution and are denied developmental aids. As a further explanation for the creation of refugees, Samaddar shows how borders make refugees in the South Asian region. Our brand of nationalism entails the acceptance of borders as unchangeable and sacrosanct and yet those very borders work against the settlement patterns of the region.

In the concluding chapter to the first section, Ravi Nair points out that both the governments of South Asia and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees have contribted to the politics of non-entree and the containment of refugees. They have thus failed to develop mechanisms by which the states could share the responsibility of rehabilitating and then protecting the refugees.

The thematic section is followed by five other sections, largely containing case studies of South Asian refugee groups including environmental refugees and internally displaced people. In a country paper on Bangladesh, Meghna Guhathakurta discusses the crucial issue of repatriation. She raises the vital question of when refugees should be repatriated. She discusses at length how the politics of the state forces population movement, especially when environmental and economic pressures act on the situation.

Following this macro study of the refugee situation in Bangladesh is a micro study of 'Biharis' in Bangladesh undertaken by Muhammad Nur Khan. He gives a poignant commentary on the plight of this Urdu-speaking group which supported Pakistan in the 1971 war but never found their way to, or their rightful place in, that land. Once their support was no longer politically crucial, the Pakistani government showed total disregard for their fate.

Manchanda and C. Amal Raj continue the tale of woe of the 'Nowhere People', or the Sri Lankan and Burmese refugees in India, who are now hostage to national security lobbies.

In the section dealing with development-related displacement, Malika Basu deals with India. The magnitude of these displacements is huge and the victims are largely those who do not have a political voice. They are largely tribals and less than 25 percent are lucky enough to be relocated even if often in areas much less habitable than what they had to leave behind. The state views compensation to these people as dole or favours granted and not as their rightful claims.

Other forms of internal displacements are due to war or civil strife such as in the case of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. The authors make the plea that non-refoulement principles should also be accepted for internally displaced people in South Asia.

This collection is a first of its kind. The writers have been able to transcend the statist perspective, and they not only tell us what has been done wrong but also give us the necessary corrective. The authors make a strong plea for the inclusion of the interests of voiceless people in policy making. By making population movements part of a non-statist political discourse, they have given a new direction to the subject. Even if part of their recommendations are accepted, it will contribute to the cause of peace in South Asia.

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