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Interview With Bishop Alex Vadakkumthala

Interview With Bishop Alex Vadakkumthala

Issues of migration and refugees have to be addressed with a human rights perspective: Bishop Alex Vadakkumthala

As World Migration Day approaches, Indian Currents spoke with Bishop Alex Vadakkumthala, Chairman, CBCI Office for Labour. He said the Church in India welcomes refugees, but still can do more to help them and emphasised Pope Francis’ message, “Every stranger who knocks at our door is an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ.”

IC: India has also been a home to refugees (Tibetans, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankan Tamils etc.). What is your opinion on the visible hostility of the Indian Government to the Rohingya refugees?

Bishop Alex Vadakkumthala: India is second to Bangladesh as the largest refugee-receiving country in South Asia. Since the Independence in 1947, India has received significant numbers of refugees fleeing conflict or persecution, not only from some of its neighbouring countries, including Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Tibet, but also distant countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda. Despite no provision in domestic law for refugees, the government of India has nevertheless put in place positive administrative frameworks and judicial decisions supporting refugee protection practices.

Issues of migration and refugees in India have to be addressed with a human rights perspective. Down through the years, the ILO and the UN have adopted a number of conventions and recommendations to protect international migrant workers against exploitation and discriminatory treatment, and protect their right to social security, etc.

Let us draw inspiration also from the words of Saint Pope John Paul II: “If the ‘dream’ of a peaceful world is shared by all, if the refugees’ and migrants’ contribution is properly evaluated, then humanity can become more and more a universal family and our earth a true ‘common home’.” Throughout history, many have believed in this “dream”, and their achievements are a testament to the fact that it is no mere utopia.

I believe India which promotes hospitality- ‘ Athidi Devo Bhava’ will take proactive steps with regard to Rohingya refugees through proper dialogue. Since the office of the UNHCR has issued identity cards to about 16,500 Rohingyas in India, which it says helps “prevent harassment, arbitrary arrest, detention and deportation” of refugees. Governments must go for peace; parties to the peace process should make concerted efforts to address related issues in multilateral and bilateral talks to ensure the safety and dignity of refugees to facilitate durable solutions.

IC: What more do you think the Government and civil society in India should do to help alleviate the reality of the Rohingyas already “officially” living in India?

I implore the empathetic view from the Government and the civil society on these Rohingya Brothers and Sisters who have become stateless, homeless and living in constant fear. The following needs to be addressed:

Save their Life

The Rohingyas in India are desperately in need of basic amenities of life such as food, water, medicine and shelter. They are located in unauthorized settlements in private lands in the suburbs of cities like Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad and engaged in rag picking and segregating wastes. They get a meagre amount for the work they do which is insufficient for their living. They need to be provided supplementary food, potable water and necessary medication. The camps they stay are overcrowded, lack sanitation and have the possibility of outbreak of communicable diseases. Half of the population are children and elderly who need proper medication. Children need vaccination against preventable diseases. The makeshift houses they stay are made of bamboos and the available waste materials. There were incidents of these houses catching fire and all their belongings including their cloths burnt off. Therefore, properly thatched tents with fire proof materials will give more safety for their life and belongings.

Identity Proof

Most Rohingya, including those who arrived in recent months, are not formally recognized as refugees by the Indian Government. This lack of formal status creates barriers to obtaining some government services and limits their access to livelihood. It also introduces a host of protection related concerns since these individuals lack access to the justice system and legal recourse. Lack of proper identity proof restricts their freedom of movement. Some of the Rohingyas who travelled to meet their relatives in another camp were caught by police and put in jail.

Education of Children

Refugees face restrictions on the education of their children. A few children in the camps have access to education that too run by an NGO. Since the children do not know Hindi, or the local language they cannot attend the government schools. There were incidents of harassments by the locals and teachers on the children who chose to attend the government schools nearby.

Gender Issues

Overcrowding in the camps, restrictions on the freedom of movement, harassment by the local people and lack of formal refugee status have left unique adverse impact on the women and girls. They feel so unsafe and insecure in the camps. They are afraid to move out alone both day and night even to fulfil their basic needs. Women are unable to report cases of harassment, domestic violence, or sexual abuse to the police, as lack of recognized legal status in India prevents them from accessing the justice system. They are not getting pre-natal and post-natal care. The women cannot protect themselves from risks associated with delivery in the camp. The concerns of human trafficking and abduction of the children were also reported.  

IC: In what ways is the Catholic Church in India involved in responding to the cries of the refugees in this part of the world.

The Catholic Church in India extends her assistance to the refugees through various organisations and individuals. The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is an international Catholic organisation with a mission to accompany, serve and advocate on behalf of refugees, asylum seekers, those internally displaced by conflict or disaster (IDPs), and those returning home after years seeking refuge abroad. Other organisations like Caritas India, CBCI Office for Labour etc. in collaboration with likeminded NGOs and Diocesan Social Service Units, reach out to the refugees in consonance with the direction of the Government to help them meet their basic needs.

IC: In keeping with the clear option of Pope Francis and the directives of the Church, what more should the Church in India be doing to welcome, protect, promote and integrate refugees?

Pope Francis has greatly inspired the global community and its leaders in dealing with this concern. On many occasions, he has personally visited refugee camps to be with them and strengthen them. The message for the World Day of the Migrants in 2018 was on “Welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating migrants and refugees.” In that message Pope Francis said: “ Every stranger who knocks at our door is an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ, who identifies with the welcomed and rejected strangers of every age (Matthew 25:35-43).  The Lord entrusts to the Church’s motherly love every person forced to leave their homeland in search of a better future. This solidarity must be concretely expressed at every stage of the migratory experience – from departure through journey to arrival and return.”

The Church in India welcomes migrants and refugees. But, it still can do much more in concrete ways, especially in educating their children, empowering the women, offering legal aid, and so on. The parish community is the immediate place where a migrant or refugee can seek help. The CBCI Office for Labour assists its Regional Counterparts in giving awareness on this matter. The Church in India is part of an International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), where CBCI Office for Labour is a member. On June 7th Fr. Jaison Vadassery, Secretary, CBCI Office for Labour, was elected as the Secretary to ICMC. This is an opportunity to address the issues and look for cooperation from International bodies and organizations. ICMC was precisely created to support Catholic organizations in responding to the needs of the displaced persons and refugees. Shortly after its creation, the ICMC Secretariat was established in Geneva, Switzerland, with the aim of collaborating closely with the newly created United Nations bodies on migration and refugee issues. On behalf of the Church in India, we speak for our people languishing in other countries as illegal migrants and refugees. There are cases our office has successfully dealt with in collaboration with the Government in repatriating the victims. We should always keep in mind that “every stranger who knocks at our door is an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ”.

(Published on 18th June 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 25)