A tribute to all refugees: World Refugee Day celebrated in India

Dr. Shashi Tharoor and Ms. Montserrat Feixas Vihe, Chief of Mission, UNHCR during the Q&A session, at the World Refugee Day lecture in New Delhi. @UNHCR/N.Bose

NEW DELHI, India, June 26 (UNHCR):  A sweltering hot day gave way to a stuffy, still and uncomfortably hot evening.  Delhi is going through its worst summer in five years, and the 20th of June, World Refugee Day was no exception.

Yet, about 200 people trudged in that heat, to hear  Dr. Shashi Tharoor, former Minister of State for External Affairs and now a  Member of Parliament , speak on  “Preserving Asylum in India: Achievements and Challenges.”  This was UNHCR’s flagship event for World Refugee Day in India.  Dr. Tharoor began his career with UNHCR in 1978, and rose over the years, to become the UN Under Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information.

India is actually a good country in which to celebrate this special day,” he said referring to the centuries –old traditions of hospitality in the country when Zoroastrians and the Jews first came to India. St. Thomas the Apostle came to the Kerala coast sometime in 52 AD, long before Europe had discovered Christianity.

 “This is India, a land whose heritage of diversity means that in the Calcutta neighbourhood, where I lived during my high school years, the wail of the muezzin calling the Islamic faithful to prayer routinely blends with the chant of mantras and tinkling of bells at the local Shiva temple, accompanied by the Sikh gurudwara’s reading of verses from the Guru Granth Sahib down the road, with St. Paul’s cathedral and the Parsi Anjuman just round the corner.  This is my estimation of India, the heritage of which we have inherited.”

 While the diversity of and tolerance in India has helped most refugees find their space in exile, there remains a legal lacuna for refugees. India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention or its 1967 Protocol, nor is there a national legal framework for refugees. Yet, in practice, it  does a lot for refugees: there is access to education and health care,  access to work,  and now recently, a long term visa that all refugees can apply for, which will give them access to work also  in the private sector and higher education.

 “It troubles me that a country with our proud traditions and our noble practices remains neither legally committed nor obliged to do anything for refugees, even if we behave humanely in practice,” said Dr. Tharoor.  “I think it is high time the Government reviewed its long-standing reluctance to sign up legally to what it is already doing morally. The Convention and the Protocol involve no obligations that we have not undertaken voluntarily.”

Dr. Tharoor spoke of the many challenges of life in exile—for children, for adults. The daunting task of learning unfamiliar languages and melting into an unfamiliar culture.  The spectre of racial discrimination too, particularly for those refugees from Africa.

 “A typical grievance of refugees is how they often think they have passed the worst by escaping the troubles of their homelands, little realizing that across the border, life could turn out to be unexpectedly more distressing.” 

He acknowledged that steps are being taken—the initiative of the long term visas—but called for India to do more, both as a member of UNHCR’s Executive Committee and a nation with “a long and proud record of asylum and refugee protection.” * 

Other celebrations in the city included an evening of shared cultures, fun and laughter at an event where refugee youth show cased their talents as dancers, singers and even, film –star impersonators.  Organised by the refugee youth clubs on a Saturday evening at the Don Bosco School in Alaknanda, some 600 refugees, UNHCR and BOSCO staff, and guests from embassies were riveted. 

Perhaps the most unusual was the “Whirling Dervishes” a Turkish Sufi tradition performed by Afghan refugees to a soulful Hindi song.  The simplicity and grace of folk dances from Myanmar and Somalia left many smiling. And Salman Khan—the Afghan Salman Khan—had people begging for more! He danced, he took off his shirt, and he was cheered by the packed hall all the way.  There were loud cheers too, for the UNHCR dance—a tradition now, where staff perform on stage, showing a very different side of themselves to refugees!

As part of World Refugee day activities, UNHCR also had a very successful sale of products made by refugees, under the “Koshish” label at the UN Conference Hall, last week.  And the week ended with a donation of sports kits from the  International Olympic Committee and Samsung for every refugee youth club in the city.


By: Nayana Bose In New Delhi

* Link: full text of Dr. Tharoor’s speech on World Refugee Day http://www.unhcr.org.in/app/webroot/img/publicationdocument/WorldRefugeeDayspeech.pdf