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  • India, UNHCR declare truce on refugee status for Nepalese

    A recent attempt by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office here to provide refugee status to a Maoist activist from Nepal led to a brief spat between the UN agency and the ministry of external affairs before both sides finally agreed to a truce of sorts.

    The UNHCR agreed to the MEA's demand that the activist in question be refused refugee status. In turn, the Government was forced to concede that he would not be deported to Nepal. The dispute ^ which has still not finally been settled ^ revolves around whether a Nepalese citizen can be declared a refugee in India.

    Though all Nepalese enjoy the right to live and work in India under the provisions of the 1950 Indo-Nepal Friendship treaty, the Indian Government has recently deported several Nepalese at the request of the Nepal Government, allegedly on grounds of their involvement with the Maoists.

    The Government, sources said, decided to deport them since the extradition process would have been cumbersome. But this conscious political decision has raised questions on the grounds that it may have violated the established legal principle of non-refoulement - according to which no person may be returned against his or her will to a country or territory where he or she may be exposed to persecution.

    Though India has not accepted the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have any domestic legislation to deal with refugees, it has usually followed the principle of non-refoulement in practice, preferring to use the process of extradition ^ with its judicial safeguards ^ whenever any person has been sought for a crime by another Government.

    It is only now that the principle has been called into question because of India's attempt to appease Nepal by deporting Nepalese citizens either involved with ^ or sympathetic to ^ the Maoist cause.

    UNHCR's attempt last month to provide refugee status to the Nepalese activist in question was immediately challenged by the Government on the grounds that it was violative of Article E of the 1951 Convention which states that the convention does not apply to a person recognised by the Government of the country in which he has taken residence as having the same rights as duties as a citizen of that country. The MEA argued that since the 1950 Indo-Nepal treaty accords Nepalese residents in India the same rights as Indians, they could not qualify as refugees. The UNHCR, however, seems to have taken the view that despite this apparent equality of rights, Nepalese have been summarily expelled from India in a way that Indian citizens cannot be.

    Rather than confronting each other, however, the Government and UNHCR decided to follow the line of least resistance. An informal agreement has been arrived at, with the UNHCR agreeing not to pursue the issue of refugee status as long as India does not attempt to deport the Nepalese citizen.

    While this truce has worked in this case, the issue is not likely to fade away now. Both the Government and the UNHCR expect more Nepalese to come to India in view of the increasing violence in Nepal.

    07 November 2002, New Delhi, India

    Source: Times of India

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