SC to study Centre’s query on ‘refugee’ status for illegal immigrants

Court was hearing petitions filed by two Rohingya men against proposal to deport their 40,000-strong community back to Myanmar

July 09, 2019 12:30 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 10:38 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Rohingya refugees scramble for aid at a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh September 24, 2017.

Rohingya refugees scramble for aid at a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh September 24, 2017.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to examine a “substantial question” put forth by the Union government as to whether illegal immigrants can even be considered for ‘refugee’ status.

A Bench led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi was hearing petitions filed by two Rohingya men against the government’s proposed move to deport their 40,000-strong community back to their native land of Myanmar, where ‘discrimination and possibly summary executions await them’.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said the primary prayers made in the petitions were to stop any proposed deportation and allow the community rights under the international law.

“But first decide whether they are refugees... Whether illegal immigrants can even be allowed the status of refugees... This is the substantial question here,” Mr. Mehta submitted.

The court said it would examine the issue and asked the parties and intervenors to complete pleadings by the next hearing.

The Rohingya , who fled to India after violence in the State of Rakhine in Myanmar, are settled in Jammu, Hyderabad, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi-NCR and Rajasthan. 

The petitions said the Centre’s move violated the constitutional guarantee that the Indian State should “protect the life and liberty of every human being, whether citizen or not.”

NHRC issues notice

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had even issued notice to the government on the proposed deportation.

Panic struck the refugee community following media reports of a statement made by then Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju in Parliament that the Centre had directed the States to identify and deport illegal immigrants, including Rohingya.

The petitions filed in the Supreme Court submitted that the 40,000-odd Rohingya were registered and recognised by the UNHCR in 2016 and granted refugee identity cards. The pleas said their deportation would violate India’s commitment to international conventions that recognise the ‘Principle of Non-Refoulement.’ This principle of customary international law prohibited the deportation of refugees to a country where they faced threat to their lives.

During the hearing, Justice Aniruddha Bose, on the Bench, asked if there were any formal guidelines, legal norms or policy decisions to determine a refugee.

Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, for the petitioners, said the UNHCR conducted intensive questioning of the immigrants to determine whether they had fled persecution or if they had crossed across for sheer economic interests. If the former, they were granted refugee status. 

“Sixty to seventy percent of Rohingya have got to be refugees,” Mr. Gonsalves submitted.

The UNHRC report of 2016 on rights violations and abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar had noted successive patterns of serious rights violations, violations to the right to life, liberty and security of the Rohingya by State security forces and other officials in Myanmar. The violations included summary executions, enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and ill-treatment, forced labour, arbitrary arrest and detention of hundreds of Rohingya, including women and children.

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