The decision to leave is never easy. One builds a home with more than money and time, and this space holds more than objects—the corner your child was born; the first room around which two generations added others; the cot that you brought with you from your maternal home; the cow whose mother also was a member of the family. But you decide to survive, so you leave.
Forced displacement, whether it takes you elsewhere within your country as an internally displaced person or across borders as a refugee, begins with the trauma of departure. It is true whether you leave because your village is about to be flooded; because you are evicted from ancestral land acquired for an industrial project; or because the sound of gunfire is coming closer. And it appears as if every time you leave, it becomes more likely you will again lose your home.
Look at us, any of us. We hold within us the history of someone’s flight—it may be a few generations removed, but we remember, “My family once lived there. We had to leave.” The trauma of flight is our legacy but we efface it, embracing a false sense of permanence.
Last week, the Supreme Court asked states to begin the eviction of those whose claims to a traditional forest home have been rejected. Over a million people, mostly adivasis from Central India, could be displaced soon. At the end of 2018, UNHCR estimated there were 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, of whom 25.4 million were refugees and 3.1 million awaited asylum; 40 million were internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s mid-2018 estimates that in the first half of 2018 alone 5.2 million people were displaced afresh because of conflict and an additional 3.3 million due to disasters.
Since the end of World
War II, we have codified human rights in many contexts, including displacement. The 1951 Refugees Convention and its protocols say asylum-seekers are not to be penalised for illegal entry or stay. Moreover, refugees cannot be forced to return to a place that they felt unsafe enough to leave. They must be provided with travel and identification papers (like the Nansen Passport). The 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement recognised that while cross-border refugees are identifiable, the internally displaced are usually invisible.
It defined their status and charged states with protecting them and their rights, arranging for them to get the paperwork they need and providing for their welfare. In December 2018, the Global Compact on Refugees was approved by the UN General Assembly. The idea is that the global community should share in the cost and responsibility of taking care of those who have to flee, whether it is providing for them or arranging for their safe transit to a third country.
These well-intentioned conventions are largely gender-blind. This means that the welfare of displaced women and sexual minorities depends on the sensitivity of individual agents. Neither fares well in this lottery.
Women who have lived in seclusion may now have to share living space with strangers, including men. They may lack access to toilets and doctors. Families flee without paperwork, and for women who find themselves heading households, the process of getting replacement papers or even simple things like a ration card can be impossible. Without those papers, they cannot access any benefits. Think of women and families in shanties across our cities; this is their life. We have seen their faces but do not always know their stories.
Crisis tests mettle, and of course, displaced women cope. They rebuild home and community, find jobs and learn skills. In several instances across the region, they are in the forefront of resistance campaigns that challenge development projects which will displace them.
Resilience does not absolve local and national governments of responsibility. Refugees are often isolated from the mainstream and live in camps where there may be special provision for them. But IDPs blend in with the margins of local society, invisible and voiceless. They lose the benefits they had at home and have no way of claiming the same—from food assistance to healthcare to voter registration. Refugees and IDPs remain outsiders for generations, sometimes carrying that tag as an ethnic identity. In an age when citizenship, birth and residence delimit one’s ability to enjoy political and civil rights and to access welfare services, this means they are almost permanently disenfranchised. This is the price of survival.
In the Northeast, notably Assam, migration has defined politics. Ecological and economic factors facilitate economic migration and flood displacement, which changes the local demographic, with political consequences. Since the 1980s, the Assamese have sought clarity—what is the cut-off that defines belonging? Recently, the move to grant citizenship to refugees from some religious groups has reopened this question. Who belongs, who should belong and who decides this? Whatever the answer, the reality is that no one speaks for those on the outside of this answer: refugees and IDPs.
More hospitable earlier, we now guard our entitlements and access jealously, given our failure to build social security and welfare systems. But life in the age of runaway consumption and climate change disasters is precarious. Helping that IDP or refugee woman rebuild her life and take care of her family reinforces our own rights and builds a system of benefits. The empathy and concern we show the forcibly displaced today could be the safety net we invoke tomorrow.
Political scientist and a member of the Women’s Regional Network