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UNHCR and India hold key meeting to strengthen cooperation

News Stories, 31 January 2008

© UNHCR/H.Caux
High Commissioner Guterres welcomes the Indian delegation at his Geneva office.

GENEVA, January 31 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency and the government of India on Thursday held their first formal high-level bilateral consultations, underlining their growing cooperation in addressing refugee problems worldwide.

"The consultations with India have been extremely fruitful and enlightening," said António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "India has ensured protection for many refugees and displaced populations over the years, and our discussions today have provided important insights into mechanisms and approaches needed to address challenging issues of displacement facing the international community."

The agenda, which was kept open to allow for wide-ranging discussions, included both global challenges such as dealing with the mixed flows of refugees and migrants, and issues focused on developments in India.

Although India is not a party to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, it has long hosted large refugee populations. UNHCR has maintained an office there continually since 1981 and the meeting in Geneva to strengthen cooperation was proposed by Guterres during an official visit to India in December 2006.

UNHCR and India have been working closely to find solutions for specific refugee groups in India. The problem of some 9,300 Afghans who had been refugees in India since the Soviet invasion of their country in 1979 was resolved by India agreeing to naturalize about 90 percent of them people who were Hindu or Sikh and several other countries agreeing to resettle the rest.

In the past two years, new refugee populations have arrived in India, including Iraqis and Palestinians who have fled Baghdad. UNHCR currently is responsible for determining whether individuals receive refugee status. A national legal framework for protection of refugees is under consideration by India.

UNHCR is also interested in strengthening cooperation with India on regional and global forced displacement issues. India has been a member of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee since 1996 and UNHCR would welcome its participation in major new areas of discussion such as UN reform and handling the mixed flow or refugees and migrants.

Given India's expertise, UNHCR would also like to strengthen collaboration with India in the field of emergency preparedness.

Guterres praised India's generous treatment of refugees over the years, noting it could serve as guidance for other countries. Among the refugees currently hosted, India provides services to more than 73,000 Sri Lankans in camps 22,000 who arrived since May 2006 and hosts more than 100,000 Tibetans in local settlements.




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Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

Most of the people working on the hundreds of tea plantations that dot Sri Lanka's picturesque hill country are descended from ethnic Tamils brought from India between 1820 and 1840 when the island was under British colonial rule. Although these people, known as "Hill Tamils," have been making an invaluable contribution to Sri Lanka's economy for almost two centuries, up until recently the country's stringent citizenship laws made it next to impossible for them to berecognized as citizens. Without the proper documents they could not vote, hold a government job, open a bank account or travel freely.

The Hill Tamils have been the subject of a number of bilateral agreements in the past giving them the option between Sri Lankan and Indian citizenship. But in 2003, there were still an estimated 300,000 stateless people of Indian origin living in Sri Lanka.

Things improved markedly, in October 2003, after the Sri Lankan parliament passed the "Grant of Citizenship to People of Indian Origin Act," which gave nationality to people who had lived in Sri Lanka since 1964 and to their descendants. UNHCR, the government of Sri Lanka and local organizations ran an information campaign informing Hill Tamils about the law and the procedures for acquiring citizenship. With more than 190,000 of the stateless people in Sri Lanka receiving citizenship over a 10-day period in late 2003, this was heralded as a huge success story in the global effort to reduce statelessness.

Also, in 2009, the parliament passed amendments to existing regulations, granting citizenship to refugees who fled Sri Lanka's conflict and are living in camps in India. This makes it easier for them to return to Sri Lanka if they so wish to.

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

The Reality of Return in Afghanistan

Beyond the smiles of homecoming lie the harsh realities of return. With more than 5 million Afghans returning home since 2002, Afghanistan's absorption capacity is reaching saturation point.

Landmine awareness training at UNHCR's encashment centres – their first stop after returning from decades in exile – is a sombre reminder of the immense challenges facing this war-torn country. Many returnees and internally displaced Afghans are struggling to rebuild their lives. Some are squatting in tents in the capital, Kabul. Basic needs like shelter, land and safe drinking water are seldom met. Jobs are scarce, and long queues of men looking for work are a common sight in marketplaces.

Despite the obstacles, their spirit is strong. Returning Afghans – young and old, women and men – seem determined to do their bit for nation building, one brick at a time.

Posted on 31 January 2008

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