Special Report

Refugees: Early warning of an impending storm


Refugees: Early warning of an impending storm

written by Swapan Dasgupta FPJ : One of the most touching stories I read recently in the British press centred on the kindness and modesty of former British Prime Minister Clement Atlee. Till last week, few were aware that the understated Labour Party leader had sponsored a Jewish woman and her children and facilitated their asylum from Germany, then under the grip of Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism. He hosted the family in his home for four months and never spoke about it, even when it was politically rewarding to do so. He was part of the unspoken kindness that we often encounter from strangers, especially in foreign lands.

The issue of refugees is touchy and emotive. Historians have unearthed the enormous difficulties that Jews, intent on fleeing from certain persecution, deportation and, eventually, murder in the Nazi-controlled parts of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s faced formidable obstacles trying to get out and find sanctuary. Britain was said to be very inhospitable but, yet, some 80,000 Jewish refugees did manage to secure asylum in that country till the outbreak of the War. If Britain was said to be mean-spirited, the US was no better. Although some Jewish notables such as Albert Einstein made America their home, draconian immigration rules resulted in only 21,000 refugees from Europe making their way across the Atlantic between 1934 and 1943. People, although, remember the stellar role played by individuals such as Eleanor Roosevelt in getting persecuted Jews over to the US, the state as a whole was unsympathetic—this despite the fact that the US was by no means an overcrowded land.

I invoke the story of Atlee for an obvious reason. After the details of the Holocaust came to be widely known, the post-1945 attitude to refugees has veered between extreme humanitarianism and pragmatism, both compassionate and hard-headed. Germany, for understandable reasons, has been the most welcoming—a reason why its compassion has also been the most misused. Sweden, too, has an impressive record, while the Britain has always found a place for notables who found themselves on the wrong side of the political divide in their host countries.

Sri Lankan Tamils, Iranians, Vietnamese and Afghans have benefited from the humanitarianism of the West. However, as most people now agree, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to allow nearly a million refugees from Syria, Iraq, North Africa, not to mention those from Afghanistan and Pakistan who joined the bandwagon, was a step too far. Apart from encouraging others to somehow get to Europe, knowing they wouldn’t be turned back, it has changed the debate over refugees and, by implication, immigration.

Today, Europe is in the throes of a virulent anti-refugee backlash that has destabilised politics in Germany, Italy and all the Scandinavian countries. In another corner of the world, Australia has clamped down on those who are seen to jump the queue for entry to a country that still encourages immigration. Some countries such as Poland and Hungary have flatly defied European Union directives and closed their doors to all refugees.

This debate is not inconsequential for India. As an independent country, India began its innings by having to cope with some seven million people displaced in two wings of the country. Since then, there have been influx of smaller numbers of Indians from Burma, Tibetans from China, not to mention the uninterrupted trickle of Bengali Hindus from East Pakistan/ Bangladesh—an influx that peaked during the 1971 crisis and war. On top of that, there has been a steady flow of illegal migrants into West Bengal and Assam, and most of them can’t be called refugees by any stretch of the imagination. In the 1980s, Assam witnessed a massive ‘anti-foreigner’ movement whose political after-effects still linger.

In the past year, India finally chose to ‘enough is enough’. The demands to accommodate Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in India has been met with a flat refusal by India. New Delhi has, instead, focussed its attention on trying to create conditions within the Rakhine province of Myanmar that would allow the refugees to go and come from the makeshift camps in Bangladesh. Although, some Rohingyas have managed to enter India illegally, courtesy some local patronage in West Bengal, their numbers are small. However, India’s refusal to assume responsibility for another lot of refugees has incensed the NGOs and professional liberals who maintain this is against the traditions of sanctuary extended by Indian society over the ages—the example of Parsis and Jews.

At one level, the issue is about overcrowding, but more importantly, it is about the devastating impact of demographic change. Tripura is a state when refugee immigration has transformed a province dominated by tribal people into a Bengali-majority province. In Assam, there are many districts bordering Bangladesh where the indigenous Assamese people have been turned into a minority. Today, Assamese-speakers within Assam are, for the first time, in a minority. In West Bengal, the religious demography of border districts has altered dramatically and created communal tension.

India is among the few countries that has a refugee problem but no statutory guidelines for refugees. Ad-hocism, discretionary approaches and cynical vote bank politics has created absolute mayhem in eastern India. It is time to take stock before the situation becomes explosive. Today, in many places, the very integrity of Indians are being threatened by the growing clout of non-Indian illegal immigrants, a minority of whom are refugees. We are also witnessing a systematic easing out of the religious minorities from Bangladesh—a process that has nothing to do with the official policies of the Sheikh Hasina government.

These are issues that are certain to come to the surface after the dust from the Assembly elections settle down after December 11. The question is: Should India’s approach be guided by mushy emotionalism or a hard-nosed acknowledgment of national interests? This column is an early warning of an impending storm.

Swapan Dasgupta  is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.




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