By describing refugees from Myanmar as “migrants”, a deliberate attempt is being made to obfuscate the issue and avoid taking responsibility for the people seeking shelter in India. A refugee has a right to protection under humanitarian law, which is the essence of the idea of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” that has been the focus of so much discussion by Prime Minsiter Narendra Modi and his intellectual and spiritual supporters.

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, or world is one family is an idea found in Hindu sacred texts. The verse from the Upnishad goes like this:

“One is a relative,
the other stranger,
say the small minded.
The entire world is a family,
live the magnanimous.

— Maha Upanishad 6.71-75

The idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam was celebrated in a rather large way in 2016, when the Art of Living group organised a world cultural event around this theme. It featured a grand orchestra consisting of 8,500 musicians playing 50 different instruments performing in Raag Desh a song celebrating the notion that the world is one.

In 2019, the Vivekananda International Foundation, which has close ties to the Bharatiya Janata Party, organised a seminar titled “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: Relevance of India’s Ancient Thinking to Contemporary Strategic Reality.”

But though Prime Minister Modi has often quoted the idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, his government is refusing to embrace the men, women and children from Myanmar seeking refuge in India. Giving asylum to refugees is rooted in our history and cultural traditions but the Modi government is getting round this obligation by referring to refugees as “migrants”.

In 2015, European governments and media did just that. That year saw more than one million people arrive at Europe’s borders as they escaped the unimaginable horrors of war, persecution or impossible living conditions. Many had risked their lives on treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea in inflatable boats that they knew were not sea worthy.

The media, including the BBC, invariably referred to these people escaping persecution as “migrants”. It was Al Jazeera that first took a policy decision to call them refugees.

An online petition urged the BBC to do the same.

The right words

“We kindly request that the BBC use the term Refugee Crisis instead of Migrant Crisis when referring to the current crisis in Europe,” it said. “The word Migrant is not an accurate description in any English language dictionary. Only by properly describing the problem can we correctly address it and find a real solution. One word can make all the difference.”

The Petition went on to ask, “Why the word Refugee?”

It explained: “All the prominent English language dictionaries define a migrant as someone who moves from one country to another in search of work and better living standards. A refugee, on the other hand, is defined as someone who is forced to leave their country in order to escape war and persecution.”

The petition was ultimately signed by 72,340 people and sparked a discussion on the meaning and importance of the two words “refugee” and “migrant”. The discussion is very relevant to us in India both in the context of the controversies over the rights of migrants that took place in relation to the amendments in the Citizen Amendment Act as well as the National Register for Citizens. But more urgently, there is a need to see that the people coming across from Myanmar through our North East borders are not migrants but refugees.

Debased language

A UN document says: “The term ‘migrant’ should be understood as covering all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of ‘personal convenience’ and without intervention of an external compelling factor.”

Journalist David Marsh wrote an article some six years ago in the Guardian entitled: “We deride them as ‘migrants’. Why not call them people?” His words resonated with me because it felt so relevant for us in India.

Marsh pointed out: “The language we hear in what passes for a national conversation on migration has become as debased as most of the arguments, until the very word ‘migrants’ is toxic, used to frighten us by conjuring up images of a “swarm” (as David Cameron put it) massing at our borders, threatening our way of life.”

As Alexander Betts, director of the refugee studies centre at Oxford University, said: “Words that convey an exaggerated sense of threat can fuel anti-immigration sentiment and a climate of intolerance and xenophobia.”

But right now the problem is not migrants but refugees coming to our country for shelter; escaping from one of the most brutal regimes in the world. Their situation fits into the four corners of the definition of “refugee”.

A refugee, according to the 1951 Refugee Convention, “is any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.”

Over the years India has given shelter to lakhs of refugees. As of 2016, the United Nations Fact Sheet estimates that India – while not being a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees – hosts 2,09,234 people of concern. This includes 1,10,095 from Tibet, 64,689 from Sri Lanka, 18,914 from Myanmar, 13,381 from Afghanistan, and also in much smaller numbers from Somalia, Bhutan, and Palestine.

This includes refugees, asylum-seekers and stateless persons. Of these only 40,276 refugees are registered with United Nations High Commission for Refugees in India as of 2020.

Dual system

India does not have a law governing refugees. Instead, the administrative and legal framework for the management of refugees and asylum seekers remains ad hoc, with an unusual dual system in which the asylum caseload is divided between the government and UNHCR, with the government responsible for a larger share.

In the light of the latest urgent problem, it would be a good idea for the government of India to think of introducing a domestic refugee protection law and procedures. In that way, this government will be able to institutionalise the ideal of Vasudaiva Kutumbakam.

Giving shelter to refugees from Myanmar and having a law for the protection of refugees would fulfill the idea of taking inspiration from ancient philosophy and marrying it to the values of international humanitarian law.

Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.