In the mid-twentieth century, Roland Barthes showed us both the 'art' and 'value' of reading a photograph. As a repository of multiple meanings, a photograph is political as much as it is aesthetic. It has layers beyond the surface that highlights the ideology of the photographer and shapes the perspective of the viewer.
Recognising the similar potential of the photographic medium, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) along with Migration and Asylum Project (MAP) organised a photo-exhibition in New Delhi to showcase the lives of refugees in the capital, their triumphs and travails.
These photographs highlighted both the narratives that we know and the ones we need to imagine. The subject matter ranged from families, small businesses, Hindi learning classes to children, gender and education. 'The idea was to humanise the narrative of refugees, to show how they are one of them with similar needs and desires', said Ipshita Sengupta, a representative from UNHCR, as we walked across the hall appreciating the installations. The purpose was to understand art as a method of awareness, to make the stories of refugees more accessible and relatable. 'We want to dispel the misconception that refugees are competing over limited resources by showing that they rather contribute to the socio-cultural development of the milieu', said the UNHCR representative.
Law, as well as legal discourse, plays a significant role in the lived experience of refugees. Despite the developments being made in the International Law, Indian law remains ambiguous on the issue of refugees, making their position even more vulnerable. Ms Sengupta highlighted that despite the constitutional protection under Articles 14 and 19, the law relating to refugees is unclear and ambiguous, which further causes looming psychological uncertainty to the community. They are unaware of their rights and the local authorities are clueless about how to engage with them. This ambiguity leaves a lot to the discretion of both the government and the judiciary, subjecting rights of refugees to prevailing socio-political climate, Ms Sengupta mentioned. This is where UNHCR steps in with its advocacy actions to ensure that refugees find a way to make their way around these ambiguities and find means to lead a secure and sustainable life.
The major issue that arises in refugees' engagement with the legal system, is that of formal documentation. Even for basic requirements of livelihood such as education, small business or a bank account, authorities ask for formal documents which are often not provided by the government, even when documents provided by UNHCR are available. Ms Sengupta pointed out that recent drives of Aadhar linking for various facilities made sustenance even more difficult for the refugees. When it comes to criminal justice, language becomes a major barrier as police authorities are not sensitized to deal with refugees and the latter are often unaware of the remedy available under the law. This victimization continues at the stage of judicial proceedings, where judges often find themselves being completely unaware of the refugee status of the person. 'The judiciary has been historically positive towards the cause of refugees, but we are afraid that it might be changing, especially with the Supreme Court's judgment on the Rohingya refugees', Ms Sengupta mentioned.
So, how do we see the future of refugee rights in India? The answer lies beyond the legal discourse, said Ms Sengupta. She highlighted the recently formulated Global Compact on Refugees to emphasize upon the 'work together' or 'integrated approach'. Under this approach, the refugee issue is understood to be not just the prerogative of state and its functionaries but also private actors, NGOs, global financial institutions such as World Bank or AIIB, civil society groups and common members of the society. The refugee programmes need to involve local communities in them to curb cultural alienation and making development inclusive and participative. Change and mobilization at the community level create a cohesive environment for refugees for not just forging a secure life but also to advocate for rights at a police level.
Ms Sengupta believes that despite not being a party to the Refugee Convention, India is obligated to ensure the protection of refugees under principles of International Law such as non-refoulment and treaties such as UDHR, Child Rights Convention, ICCPR, etc. Indian law needs to provide certainty to the rights of refugees, otherwise, the ambiguity will forever subject the community to the perpetual possibility of discrimination, she mentioned. The government must work towards including refugees in programmes and schemes to ensure their better integration with society.
The exhibition was a window for visitors to become aware of the lives of refugees in their city. Through each picture, one was exposed to the narratives that mark the lived experience of the refugees and how they continue to carry hope. There were also many food and craft stalls on display, to reiterate the idea that refugees bring culture and diversity to the land and shall be cherished in the socio-economic milieu. The art here was a medium of awareness, to make knowledge a ripple; of hope upon which the rights-based advocacy of refugees may continue to grow and thrive.