Skip to content

Refugees of the world

April 1, 2009

The number of refugees a country generates gives a fair idea as to its inner turmoil, however much it denies its problems. If the number of refugees in the world are increasing and not decreasing it points to the fact that conflicts tend to fester a long long time. According to the latest UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) report* refugees of the world increased by 12 per cent (383,000 asylum applications!) in 2008 as compared to the previous year. There have been highs and lows over the years. In 2006 there was a dip (307,000 claims), a twenty year low, and in 2001 there was a surge (623,0006 claims) because of the refugees from the Central African Republic. In 2007 too there was an increase in asylum applications due to the Iraq war and in 2008 there were more of Somali and Afghan asylum-seekers due to the conflicts there.

According to the Geneva Convention a refugee is anyone who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” and countries which have signed it have an obligation to take in refugees**.

Where the refugees come from
India is vilified for its abysmal poverty but we don’t have many who want to get out because of persecution of some sort. There are many Indian economic migrants but not many refugees. Not a bad record considering that India has been vilified for its religious violence as well. India sent out only 3,398 asylum applications in 2007 and 2,971 in 2008.  As can be seen from this graph from UNHRC, the countries which presently send out the maximum asylum requests are Iraq, the Russian Federation, Somalia, Serbia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Iran, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Bangladesh and China, in that order.

India is number 20 on the list despite having such a large and diverse population. If one compares India to China, another equally populous country, and in fact with a far more homogeneous population than India’s, then China doesn’t fare well. China sent as many as 5,944 asylum requests to Europe in 2007, and 4,662 in 2008. And as for Pakistan, the number was 13,492 in 2007 and 12,126 in 2008. Sri Lanka is a small country but it sent out 6,202 requests in 2007 and 7,701 in 2008. There is no doubt that 2009 is going to see a huge number of Tamil origin people wanting out of Sri Lanka.

Countries which host the refugees
The developed countries lead here. Europe gets 75% of the world’s asylum applications (the UK is 10% of the EU figure and 8% of the whole), and the USA and Canada get 22%. Australia and New Zealand get 1.3% and Japan and Korea about .5%. This is not to say that only rich countries host refugees. Countries like Tanzania, Iran, Turkey and India host a huge number of refugees due to the instability in the surrounding countries, and often these refugees are not properly documented. India has one of the highest refugee populations in the world (although there is criticism about the way India handles these) and these refugees are mainly from surrounding countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and China.

India as a host
There are believed to be about 330,000 refugees (some say 420400) all in all India today and out of these 26% are from Tibet. India has been accused of playing favourites, partial to refugees from from Tibet and Sri Lanka. And despite international pressure India is continuing to refuse to sign the international treaty for Refugees, insisting that the country is “doing good without signing.”

*These statistics are based on the number of individual asylum claims submitted in Europe and selected non-European countries during 2008. They cover 38 European and six non-European countries. These numbers are just the asylum claims “made at the first instance of asylum procedures.” The appeals and outcomes of these claims is not included

**When the Geneva Convention was first drafted there was no significant economic migration and today the challenges that host countries face is distinguishing the economic migrants from the refugees. Now that economic migration is getting tougher due to increased rules and regulations, many people try the refugee route.

40 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2009 7:21 pm

    India does have a lot of refugees and I think documentation is very much needed. During Partition of Bengal so many people of “East Bengal” came to India and now they own all the land and other properties. There should be a stringent system of granting citizenship. Even now crossing the West Bengal-Bangladesh border is no big deal.

    Reema, I am not sure how many of these are actually refugees and how many are illegal economic migrants. I think more of the latter. – Nita.

  2. April 1, 2009 7:25 pm

    I accept ,a lot of work has been put-in by you collecting this data and report.It worries me a lot.For a moment ,let’s look at Indian interest only.Can we accommodate refugees?Bangladeshis
    have been creating problems for us.There is no point my elaborating the point any further.India needs to be careful, especially at Indo-Bangla border.

    That’s true BK we are a poor country. But then refugees are refugees and it is a humanitarian thing to let them in because they are under fear of death and persecution in their own countries. India has a tradition of welcoming refugees which goes back to a thousand years ago. Remember the Parsees? Even before that, there were whole populations from central europe which came and settled in India due to religious persecution which you can read about here. – Nita.

    • vasudev permalink
      April 2, 2009 10:02 am

      couldn’t help commenting here. parsis are refugees who value-added to us both culturally and economically at all levels. you might have noticed titles such as cobbler, carpenter, painter, engineer, contractor etc etc. which means at every level they were value adding and what is more? they were even proud of their profession so much so that it became their title. parsis like tata/godrej etc are examples of those who made india what it is today. jews too were a refugee community which faced persecution elsewhere. but they value added to the main line and thoroughly got blended with the stream. even the us ex president lauded the indian migrants because at every level they were only enriching that country. not pulling it down to ghetto levels.

    • April 3, 2009 9:07 am

      Yes but there is no comparison between Parsees and Bangladeshis.Parsees came in from Sanjan and said that they will mix in the country like sugar is mixed in milk.Can we say that for the Bangladeshis? No.They are the biggest trouble creators for India ,despite the fact that they owe their very existence to us.These facts can not be wished away.

      • jk47 permalink
        April 9, 2009 3:01 am

        But the irony is that while Sugar will not be visible, it can still kill you in the end, slowly over time.

        The Parsees own a lot of India’s business’s, and have a disproportionate amount of wealth, which they hoard. Being a foreign group which has many Jewish/Muslim traits, they will continue in this fashion and have no interest in the sufferings of the common Indian.

        That is the capitalist system unfortunately, the few will always have power over the many. On the bright side, they did give the world Freddy Mercury!

        The Bangladeshis situation has a lot to do with the British Empire and its mismanagement of that area, as well as the unnecessary partition those stupid white people enforced on India. These people need help, otherwise they will just turn to a radical form of Islam, and that is the last thing the area needs.

  3. April 1, 2009 8:22 pm

    Bangladeshis continue to come over because of the CPM govt. in W.B. …In Gurgaon, where I live, 80% of the domestic help is from Bangladesh although they have documents showing they are from Malda (a border district)…The CPM government continues to encourage Bangladeshis to come over in order to get votes…Once they have proper papers, they migrate to other parts of the country…

    Hmm, looks like they are illegal economic migrants. – Nita.

  4. vasudev permalink
    April 1, 2009 8:22 pm

    Can a sick, weak mother who is unable to wean its own children, fetch even the neighbours famished ones? Who is bearing the expenses? You and I and our taxes! Sanjay Gandhi would have machine gunned the refugess at the very border and that would be the best deal as well as nasbandi on indian males irrespective of caste/creed/religion.

    • Vinod permalink
      April 2, 2009 8:01 am

      Your post is disgusting, vasudev. The hate you harbour is venomous. You sicken me.

  5. April 1, 2009 8:26 pm

    Inetresting statistics…Austria (where I live) is one of the most favorite destinations for refugees, but mostly we have people from Africa, and Serbia, not many from Iran.
    i want also to mention here that from Russia it is only Chechenians who are seeking asylum. Interestingly, when they commit crimes here they call then “Russians”, when there is something good about them (being helped or else) they call them Chechenians 🙂

    Thanks for highlighting the topic, Nita!

    And thanks for that info on Chechens! – Nita.

  6. April 1, 2009 9:11 pm

    not surprising….We export people who work…but then the reason they go there is for better conditions…

  7. April 1, 2009 9:28 pm

    @ Nita : I know many second generation or third generation Tibetans who were born in India and are still ‘refugees’. People born on this soil should become automatically citizens. It is a punishment for someone to spend their entire life as a stateless person even if they were born on this land. Actually I know many instances where the first generation worked building the roads of this country and only by the third could they achieve education and accomplish some sort of economic prosperity.

    @ Reema : Creation of Bangladesh was done by India and as such India chose to involve itself in a foreign conflict. The refugees that resulted were due to this conflict. Even if they are now in India beware that Bangladesh is set to entirely disappear due to natural phenomenon in the future. All of the population of Bangladesh would eventually become “Indians”. So instead of having a focused policy on how to deal with this region most Indian politicians are only making ‘blanket’ statements about our neighbours. Oh and by the way Maldives is set to disappear even before Bangladesh….

    No country can refuse to accept refugees because if you refuse, do not forget that tomorrow someone else can refuse you! This planet belongs to all of us and is not the property of some nation-states only! When a piece of land becomes unlivable due to oppressive natural, economic or political circumstances people will move. It has always been the same. Entire civilizations have moved and they will keep moving.

    Odzer, I agree with you about not refusing refugees, the genuine ones I mean. I think India has an okay record in this.

    • vasudev permalink
      April 1, 2009 9:46 pm


      it wasn’t india’s involvement in bangladesh which created bangladesi refugees but the mass movement of bangladesi refugees into india during the pak attack of bangladesh which forced india to get involved with the mukti bahini.

      bangladeshi refugees into india are mainly muslims who oppressed hindus in bangladesh and converted them into islam by force (read the novel ‘lajja’ by tasleema nusreen). for expressing herself freely she was hounded out of bangladesh (pseudo-secularism doesn’t work there. it is either you are a believer or a kaffir). bangladeshi refugees in india are hated by the east pakistani hindus who were earlier forced to take refuge in india by the muslims of their erstwhile country. bangladesi refugees are hated by most hindus in india because they are thieves, they work from within for the enemy, they have no respect for their refuge and have shown complicity in placing bombs in their country of refuge primarily only because it is an extension of the agenda they had in bangladesh. with our pseudos supporting them to dig their own graves it is not long before we may have to face the serious consequences of our cowardice. in this respect i wish sanjay gandhi was alive today. it would have been a different india.

      vasudev, I just saw your comment, and I am afraid it has violated my comment policy. Unfortunately it has been on air for some time now so I am not sure whether to edit it, particulary as Vinod has replied to it. But kindly desist in future from making generalised comments about whole populations. Your comment is racist – Nita.

      • vasudev permalink
        April 2, 2009 9:49 am


        if you consider my comments as racist please delete them outright. as regards vinod’s reply it is just his personal opinion and he is also free to express it. i talk from a more practical view-point as seen in mumbai where ghettos are created on major arterial roads leaving stinking refuse behind and thankless chaps loot trucks of grains by simply using the blade to slit sacks. and despite all this they still collude in bombing us those who give them shelter. you may have to delete all the comments.

        • April 2, 2009 10:22 am

          Vasudev, I don’t think all your comments are racist, but certainly on this post I see them as racist. But now I will have to delete Vinod’s comment too and I generally don’t like deleting any comments. Its only under extreme circumstances that I do it. Overall I find you are an intelligent man Vasudev and can be very reasonable too but at times you do express opinions that call whole communities something. I do not want to go into a debate as to whether whole communities are of a particular nature. You have been a valuable commentator Vasudev, and often bring in new perspectives, but I will really appreciate it if you try and stick to the comment policy. No hard feelings at all. Thanks.

          • Vinod permalink
            April 2, 2009 10:48 am

            Nita, my comment is of no particular value here. Feel free to delete it.

          • vasudev permalink
            April 2, 2009 11:06 am

            you are a very nice person and my first concern is always that i shouldn’t spoil your fine forum here. sometimes i get incensed by an inability to understand the finer aspects of diplomacy where i should allow a bug to bite me and also make it confortable to do its job. i have been in mumbai on two appointed terms and while in the first term i landed here squarely in the middle of mumbai riots/ train bomb blasts and had to travel in local trains all the while looking under the seat, looking at the luggage carrier, looking at my fellow travellers and seeing a potential bomber in everyone. my this term too hasn’t been very nice and, from now onwards, i have to look at every hostess and pilot with suspicion. someone is deliberately keeping me paranoidly awake. and yet we seem to get riled when someone who is terribly scared himself lets off a bit of his steam. delete the post nita. the moment of madness has passed anyway.
            the ‘i’ here does not only refer to me but to all those suffering ordinary mumbaikars who have to silently bear so much!

            • April 2, 2009 12:04 pm

              Thank you Vasudev. I do understand that you were letting off steam, but not everyone can. After all it’s not just people on this forum but some unknown stranger who might open this page say after a few months. However you have clarified and therefore I do not see the harm in letting the comment be. I think anyone who has misunderstood you needs to read your latest comment too.

    • Vivek S. Khadpekar permalink
      April 2, 2009 5:13 am


      Thanks for at least referring to an important category that has been significant by its omission from this post and the comments on it — environmental refugees.

      Apart from instances such as the Maldives and Bangladesh, which you mention, there is a threat looming incrementally around the world of people in large countries — such as India, China and Brazil — becoming refugees within their own political boundaries owing to the ravage of their traditional homelands, and resource and livelihood bases, by the rapacious forces of “development”.

      Since this kind of refugee movement is not international, it will not show up in the kind of databases that Nita has drawn upon. Yet it is a genuine issue that is gaining momentum in many countries around the world.

      We apparently do not as yet have a term, or even a concept, that allows for people to be seen as asylum-seekers within their own countries. Therefore, while international asylum seekers at governed at least by some laws and conventions, however unsatisfactory, there are no such provisions for this other category. Its trials and tribulations are sometimes anecdotally reported, but largely do not feature in any policy or agenda.

  8. April 1, 2009 10:15 pm


    In Delhi, Kashmiri Brahmins who left for fear of persecution and other harm are still called refugees, illustrating a painful and ludicrous focus on ‘separateness’ within India. Tibetans are at the back of a long queue :-/

  9. April 1, 2009 10:22 pm


    Unsurprisingly, UK politicians and media do a fantastic and deliberately obfuscatory job of mixing references to migrants and asylum seekers. I am certain it is the same in other countries. Further political expediency in its various hues prevents real and fraudulent numbers of asylum seekers from being reported accurately. Then there is massive trafficking in the east-to-west direction. I suspect one reason why Chinese asylum applications may be so few is that many are trafficked to work in menial jobs with measly pay which they need to pay off the gangmasters who bring them to western countries through various but always painful means.

    In the end, all this is an economic discussion; I doubt many worry sincerely about human rights but all definitely worry about jobs and incomes. Because the trafficked people are ‘underground’ they cannot and do not contribute actively to the economy but may be paying their way. Asylum seekers have access to state benefits in a way economic migrants do not, although the latter put in much into the system.

    I think cross-border human traffic (not in the sense used above) will not reduce with time; in fact, as people settle in different countries, it will only grow as relatives, friends and families seek to join them.

    Probably John Lennon did have the right phantasmagorical idea about ‘no countries’; but I also suspect he hadn’t the first clue about administration. So just as well his views were all imaginary :-/

    Thanks Shefaly for that insight. Yes ofcourse you are right, countries love to do lip service and when it comes to the migrants, nowadays it is actually tough to distinguish between the economic migrant and the refugee due to the fraudulent applications made for refugee status. – Nita.

  10. April 1, 2009 11:28 pm

    @ Shefaly : Kashmiri Pandits have Indian nationality, Tibetans are stateless even if they are born in India. Vast difference!

    @ Vasudev : India could have just let East Pakistan be and not interfered. It ALWAYS had THAT CHOICE. Also I feel you are painting a lot of people with the same brush and the same colour.

    • Vivek S. Khadpekar permalink
      April 2, 2009 5:30 am


      “…Tibetans are stateless even if they are born in India…”

      Is that your personal opinion or a legal position? It would be interesting to know. How are Tibetan refugees in India and their offspring born here different from the lakhs of Bengalis, Punjabis and Sindhis who crossed over at the time of partition?

      • April 2, 2009 8:29 am

        @ Vivek : I am talking about a LEGAL position, even if you are a Tibetan born in India you can only get a “Registeration Certificate” that has to be extended every year. If you want to travel internationally you get a Yellow passport which is known as an “Identity Certificate”. Returning back to India requires a visa again from an Indian embassy abroad.

        I think most refugees that cross in to India from Bangladesh are already environmental refugees because 70% of Bangladesh goes under water almost every year. Its a DELTA and basically unfit for human habitation. 100% of the population of that country WILL end up in India one day. Its just a matter of time. I think India should have a concrete policy to deal with that situation in the future.

    • April 2, 2009 4:25 pm


      I was referring to how the word ‘refugee’ is used colloquially. As long as the word is bandied about as it is, people will not comprehend the pain the actual status causes nor will public opinion rally to changing it.

      I use words precisely because I believe in the power of words and suggestion and that was the spirit of my remark about social inclusion.

      In general, most Indians do not even register Tibetans on their radars. Ask around if you would like to test it.

  11. April 2, 2009 5:28 am

    No country has been able to secure its borders, legally or unlegally. The figure of 330K refugees is a mammoth number considering the fact that India is our debt has climbed to figures which is 80% of our GDP

    Great post and very informative!

    Keep Blogging!

    True, it’s a huge burden for India. I think if we are strict on the economic refugees we will be able to handle the genuine ones though. – Nita.

  12. April 2, 2009 5:34 am

    Thanks for the informative post, Nita.

    At the moment, I am wondering if the present financial crisis is going to lead to a massive surge of refugees, asylum-seekers, economic migrants, etc. And in this particular recession-era, no contries are going to be favorably placed in accepting such people. The crisis may assume grave proportions.

    The financial crises I think will lead to a kind of reverse economic migration from developed countries. – Nita

  13. April 2, 2009 9:06 am

    @ Nita, as much as I dont like the sweeping conclusions people from outside India make about our society, culture and politics when they see our poverty, I dont think we are vilified per se. I think the general reaction is shock, and if you think about it, its more at the neglect than at the poverty. There are a lot of poor people here in America too, and there is a lot of neglect but nothing on the scale of India.

    If there is anything we are vilified for, its the caste system. I have had everyone from Americans to Germans to Chinese to Japanese tell me about how shocked and appalled they are at the treatment of the ‘untouchables’ in India.

    I agree with odzer that Tibetan refugees should be given citizenship.

    @ Odzer, I am not so sure I agree with you completely on Bangladesh. I am not against the individual Bangladeshi who comes to India for various reasons, but I also think that it is unfair for a group of people to demand a separate nation state and then disrespect the very fundamental basis of a nation state, territorial sovereignty.

    I know you and I have different opinions on this subject, but I dont think my position is philosophically unjustified, although as you say with rising sea levels it may not be moral or practical.

    • Vinod permalink
      April 2, 2009 10:20 am

      Vikram, some day in some other forum, I’d like to hear your take on the comparison of the poor in India and the poor in US. I’ve had this discussion before and in some respects the poor in India are better off than the poor in US and in other respects the converse is true. I have a lot of respect for the research you do about India.

      • April 2, 2009 10:27 am

        Vinod, an interesting topic indeed! We can always request Vikram to do a post on it as he knows both situations. How about it Vikram?

        • April 2, 2009 10:16 pm

          I will do a post on this by Monday. I have a bit of a busy weekend.

          • April 7, 2009 6:12 am

            Sorry, I cant keep my word, it will be up there by Thursday night.

  14. April 2, 2009 11:04 am

    refuge – sharanagati as we call in sanskrit explains it all. our culture (Indian or as human beings) suggest that we help anyone one who comes to us seeking help.

    no one wants to be a refugee by choice, it is due to some or the other threats to its citizens that a country chooses to let some of its people to better living conditions. and all the other countries must come forward to help fellow human beings.

    having said that it is for the genuine refugees. if refuge is being used as disguise for immigration for political or economic reasons, the countries have a right to consider giving the refuge.

    Thanks oorja. You explained it very well. Yes, this is very much in our sanskriti! – Nita.

    • sangeeta permalink
      April 23, 2009 1:57 pm

      Very well said oorja

  15. ruSh.Me permalink
    April 2, 2009 11:44 am

    Why can’t WP devise Image Commenting?? 😦

    Found something interesting..

    ruSh.Me, thanks! That’s a wonderful link to a great visual about the refugee situation. – Nita

  16. Naveen permalink
    April 2, 2009 6:58 pm

    I thought the quote is relevant here.

    ” John, the kind of control you’re attempting is not possible. If there’s one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free. It expands to new territories. It crashes through barriers painfully, maybe even dangerously, but – well, there it is… All I’m saying is that life finds a way. ”
    -Dr. Malcolm in Jurassic Park

  17. greate chola!! permalink
    April 12, 2009 7:49 am

    Tamils from Sri lanka are not refuges, the are ethic Indians, if they money they are NRI’s and take dinner with PM of India, if have not they are refuges..

    india does not have refuges,don’t gave this identy to (lankan tamils, pak shinds, Bangladeshis) them.the are came here because of discrimination, so don’t do the same in india.

  18. sangeeta permalink
    April 23, 2009 1:55 pm


    As per odzer’s doubts… all 2nd and 3rd gen Tibetans are now Indian citizens and I card holders. Some of them I know in Majnu ka tilla Delhi.. are now going to vote this year.

    But they say their soul is in Lhasa. The minute they get a chance they will leave India. Their’s was desperate situation because they would otherwise
    have been killed by the chinese. even now most of the families have people in Tibet who are being persecuted.

    But I couldn’t understand why the Tamilians of Srilanka came to India. They could have gone down to the southern part. I think it was a ploy to just pile some more people on us.

    • May 9, 2010 2:52 pm

      Dear Nita ,

      It was really good to see you writing on refugees from other
      countries like Bangladesh , Sri Lanka and also about South African
      refugees .
      I was surprised to see that you have not mentioned a single word on
      Kashmiri Pandits , who are staying in their own country with a
      refugee status . They have left their ancesterial place just because
      one particular community is against India.
      If they are refugees , it is because of the governments mistakes .
      This Kashmiri Pandit community used to be intelligent and 100%
      literate community which it is not now in present circumstances
      because of the migration .

  19. sangeeta permalink
    April 23, 2009 2:03 pm

    The world does not need tourists who ride by in a bus clucking their tongues. The world as it is needs those who will love it enough to change it, with what they have, where they are.

    Robert Fulghum (1937 – )


  1. India’s poor and the poor in America, can a comparison be made ? « An academic view of India

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: