Recap: Lands, Borders and People
Our series on migration, refugees and displacement in South Asia
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
...Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
'Easter 1916', W. B. Yeats
In 1916, William Butler Yeats wrote about the Irish independence movement that transformed the face of Ireland completely, changing citizens’ lives almost overnight: “a terrible beauty is born.” The same can be said for South Asia, given its vast, interconnected, deeply historical shared experiences. Beginning in the 1940s, what was once India has become a host of interconnected countries, all with new borders; the legacy of Independence is that people have found it increasingly challenging to cross these borders. Conflict and ethnic violence compel people to leave their countries, but they find many challenges in settling in other South Asian countries. The Rohingya violence in Myanmar is the most urgent and large-scale of these refugee crises; many others continue to pervade South Asia and violence against certain ethnic groups continues to make life unspeakably difficult in many parts of the subcontinent.
At Asia Society, we were motivated to look at the human side of this emergency, given the sheer scale of this problem. We were motivated to bring together people to find solutions from an interconnected lens: policy, advocacy, journalism and academia. This led to our series, Lands, Borders and People: Mobility, Displacement and Refugees in South Asia. Over four sessions in June and July, we brought together panels of experts to discuss particular focus areas: international law and the politics of displacement; climate-induced migration; the role of the host nations; and media narratives on displacement. Over each of the four panels, we had deeply engaging conversations, with audience questions forming crucial exploration areas in each panel; and we were able to understand this issue in greater depth. The series was chaired by Priyali Sur, who has reported extensively on refugee issues in India and is the founder of The Azadi Project.
The expert speakers on our panels offered us focal points to begin these conversations, and shared the expertise and knowledge of their life’s work with us. They brought in a diversity of perspectives that enabled us to understand this issue at multiple levels: from global media and rhetoric (Preethi Nallu, Sukhmani Khorana) and policy and the legal frameworks in South Asia (Ujjaini Chatterji; Jay Ramasubramanyam; Aqdas Afzal; Sanjay Vashist) to on-ground advocacy and reportage with displaced persons and refugees (Rubana Haq; Pari Saikia; Poongkothai Chandrahasan; Stella Paul); and crucially, we heard firsthand from refugees about what their experiences have been, and what they need to lead enriching, safe lives (Ali Johar; Stella Paul; Poongkothai Chandrahasan). Some key learnings from the series included:
- The need and opportunity for a South Asian country coalition, with a shared commitment to addressing climate-related disasters in the region;
- The legal frameworks that apply to South Asian countries on their responses to refugees, and the limitations and scope of each country’s legislation, as well as the Geneva Convention;
- The importance of language in the media and public narratives to either perpetuate or counter the harmful stereotypes of refugees within and from South Asia, as well as the impact and interconnections between policy and rhetoric;
- The educational and livelihood opportunities that can be created at the community-level, with group efforts, for refugees in host nations, and the impact this can have on the quality of life of refugees;
- The interconnected nature of societal responses we need towards this issue, rather than simply human rights: local governance; policy; media capacity building; intersectoral collaboration;
- Intersectional and collaborative approaches to refugee and displacement issues rather than isolating it as a human rights issue: ranging from local governance to media capacity building, and multilateral and governmental policy responses;
At Asia Society India Centre, our aim is to create the space for nuanced, meaningful dialogue on issues that are most relevant to our shared world in South Asia – bridging the gaps between Asia and the rest of the world, and between disciplines like technology, society, culture, business and policy. This is an ongoing endeavour; four sessions are not nearly enough to cover the depth of this issue. There is more to be said on the gendered nature of conflict, sharing first-hand perspectives of refugees, economic resilience in vulnerable communities and covering the breadth of conflicts in South Asia. We hope to create more conversations in the future, drawing on many of the collaborations we have cultivated through this series, to broaden both the scope of the issue being discussed, as well as the set of individuals and organisations meaningfully engaged with the human side of displacement in South Asia.
Asia Society India Centre