The Manipur High Court on Monday allowed seven Myanmar citizens to seek protection from the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in New Delhi. The court directed authorities in the state to make arrangements for their transportation.

The seven Myanmar citizens fled after a coup plunged their country into crisis and took shelter in Moreh in Tengnoupal district of Manipur.

A petition filed by human rights advocate Nandita Haksar said the Centre has directed authorities in North Eastern states to check the flow of “illegal migrants” coming into India from Myanmar. However, the petition said, this communication failed to differentiate between a migrant and a refugee.

A bench of Chief Justice Sanjay Kumar and Justice Lanusungkum Jamir said that the seven Myanmarese nationals are not “migrants” but “asylum seekers”.

“They did not enter our country with the clear-cut and deliberate intention of breaking and violating our domestic laws,” the court said. “They fled the country of their origin under imminent threat to their lives and liberty. They aspire for relief under International Conventions that were put in place to offer protection and rehabilitation to refugees/asylum seekers. In such a situation, insisting that they first answer for admitted violations of our domestic laws, as a condition precedent for seeking ‘refugee’ status, would be palpably inhuman.”

The court noted that even though India’s policy for refugees was opaque and asylum seekers are straightaway termed as “foreigners”, certain protections are guaranteed under Articles 14 and 21 of our Constitution even to those who are not citizens of the country.

It added:

“It is in the context of Article 21 that the principle of ‘non-refoulement’ assumes great significance. Non-refoulement is a principle of international law that provides a refugee or asylum seeker with the right to freedom from expulsion from a territory in which he or she seeks refuge or from forcible return to a country or a territory where he or she faces a threat to life or freedom because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion.”

— Manipur High Court order

The judges noted that reports that have emerged from Myanmar after the February 1 coup show that the seven individuals, given their links with the banned Mizzima Media Organization, face imminent threat to their lives and liberty if they go back to the country.

“Further, though an argument was advanced about the possible threat that these Myanmarese persons may pose to the security of our country, no material is produced in support of the same,” the court noted.

Myanmar’s military had seized power in February by staging a coup. It said that the November 8 elections won by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were fraudulent, an accusation dismissed by the country’s election commission. Military leaders have promised to conduct polls again, but have not set a date and have declared a state of emergency. Dozens of people have been killed by security forces in efforts to stop protests against the military takeover of the country.

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