The European refugee crisis is already happening in India, have you noticed?

Human dignity and human rights are two sides of the same coin and no one has a greater right over it than the next person.
The European refugee crisis is already happening in India, have you noticed?
The European refugee crisis is already happening in India, have you noticed?
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As Europe sees a massive influx of refugees from Syria, Iraq and beyond, people are asking themselves an odd question – are these real refugees or economic refugees? In other words are the estimated one million people projected to reach Europe by the end of 2015 looking for jobs or fleeing political or religious persecution?

For some perspective, India ranks first among countries where there are thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs). And within India some 300,000 are in Assam.  The Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) says these IDPs are from Sonitpur, Kokrajhar, Udalguri and Chirang.

Some estimates suggest that at any given point in time, half a million Indians are moving in search of a job. This does not include Kashmiris who are refugees in their own land. This does not include the highly educated or highly skilled going to universities in the western world or gulf countries. These are men, women and children moving from state to state in a country where jobs are concentrated in pockets leading to villages emptying themselves into cities. They are mostly involved in construction work or as house-help with no rights, no access to medical care and in many case, no off days.

What is the difference between IDPs within a country and those who travel the high seas – refugees or immigrants? Do the length and dangers in the journey count? Just the other day, a wall in Bangalore collapsed killing migrant workers from Jharkhand. How long does it take to travel from Bangalore to Jamshedpur (Jharkhand) where the bodies were reportedly sent and who received them?  We asked, nobody knew, there was, it seems, no need to go beyond. Need becomes a necessity when the chips are down as it is for most people who flee familiar surroundings.

I was confronted with this question several times a day in 1985 while working as part-time translator for the Swiss government. The first wave of refugees fleeing war-torn Sri Lanka had started arriving in Europe. How many were they – 50,000 or five and where were they headed? Their stories were almost always the same.  They had made their way to India, paid thousands of dollars to handlers who ensured safe passage to Europe. The luckier ones according to them reached the United Kingdom (UK) where language was easy. This was several years before the Euro tunnel linking Europe to UK existed. The next time I came face to face with thousands of people fleeing their homes was during the war in the Balkans and the same questions were raised – are they real or economic refugees? Earlier this year we marked the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre – remember?

Today, the hundreds of people fleeing Syria head to Turkey from where it is a relatively short trip to the Greek islands of Kos, Chios, Lesvos and Samos. Often they travel in flimsy rubber dinghies or small wooden boats. Like the thousands who travelled between Sri Lanka and India in a catamaran, leaving Mannar island off the north-western coast of Sri Lanka to arrive in Pamban island in India. On a clear day, both sides are visible to the naked eye.

But the Lankan refugees left at night. They waited till past full moon days to reach India to disappear and surface in Bern, Switzerland’s capital. They hid in trains, walked through tunnels, hitched rides and ran. There were young men and women, mothers with children, some as young as a few months. Kilinochi, Point Pedro, camps, shootings, disappearances was part of routine questioning and to some extent it fell upon to translate words and stories. Monetary compensation, jobs and refugee status would depend on these interviews. Farmer – how big? Small farmer – how small? I remember spending sleepless nights – did I do justice, what if she wasn’t lying or speaking the truth? How do you define someone who is neither personally persecuted nor poor but lives in a bombed-out area? Not all refugees feeling the Nazis were poor. And not all people leaving Germany were persecuted. This time last century, Europe was in the throes of the First World War – millions would be killed subsequently till the guns fell silent in 1945. This time last century, those who could do so left for the United States (US). Many arrived in America as poor refugees and many as highly qualified physicists, doctors and engineers.

People do not leave the comfort of their homes and the familiarity of their towns unless there is a very compelling reason. As refugees from war and want arrive on Europe’s shores, a two-hour flight from their landing is the very august and illustrious office of the United Nations (UN) building in Geneva where walls are inscribed with our rights and paintings ironically portray all people sailing forth in one boat. Last month the comity of nations decided in their combined wisdom that Saudi Arabia would head an important UN committee on human rights.

What is the connection, you may ask? Plenty and never have these questions become more necessary to ask than they are now as we speak of caste and class, jobs and unemployment, religion, colour, education and politics. People from India’s northeast for example, are often the target of racial attacks in Delhi or Bangalore just as Biharis bear the brunt of politicians in Maharashtra. If politicians can find a wedge to drive in their drivel, they will. The far right in Europe has been rattling the chains for a while now.

We may not be able to do more than react to images of horror and death on European shores, but let us remember that rural India is also a very violent place where murders, rapes and caste conflicts in addition to abject poverty decides fate of entire communities. People who build our cities, tend to our gardens, drive our cars and help us raise our children have also left homes such as these where there is no future.  Among those who got away or took life into their own hands are all around us helping us get ahead as they too move forward.

Human dignity and human rights are two sides of the same coin and no one has a greater right over it than the next person.

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