A War That Should Never Have Happened: Analysing India’s Stand With Respect to The Syrian Civil War and Refugee Crisis

By: Akash Anurag & Udaiveer Singh Ahlawat


As the Syrian conflict reaches its conclusion with the almost certain defeat of the rebel forces, more than 4,65,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, more than a million injured and over 12 million, half the country’s pre-war population has been displaced from their homes. The crisis had its genesis in the Arab Spring Revolution of 2011 which led to the change in regime in Tunisia and Egypt. By March 2011, peaceful protests had started in Syria, against the President Bashar–Al–Assad. The Syrian government responded to the protests by killing hundreds of demonstrators and imprisoning many more. In July 2011, defectors from the military announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group aiming to overthrow the government, and Syria began to roll into civil war. With the deepening of the civil war in Syria, today more than 13.5 million people in the country are in need of humanitarian assistance within Syria of which 6 million people are internally displaced. Nearly, an additional 5 million Syrians have sought refuge in the neighbouring countries.

Foreign Interventions from some of the superpowers of the world have played an important role in deepening the Syrian Civil War and the Refugee Crisis. The United States has constantly shown their opposition to the Assad Regime though it has hesitated to involve itself deeply in the conflict in spite of the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad Government to crush the opposition and which was referred to as a “Red Line” for prompting intervention. An international coalition led by the United States has bombed targets of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group since 2014. In contradiction, Russia, Iran and China have criticised the United States’ stand on Syria and have actually actively supported the presidency of the Assad regime. In the United Nations Security Council, while Russia has till date vetoed eight west-backed resolutions on Syria,[1] China has vetoed six of such Security Council Resolutions.[2]

With the nation and its beautiful historic citadels of man’s development like Aleppo, Damascus et al. being razed to the ground in the face of the on-going civil war, the issue of Syrian Refugees has now established itself as an important issue facing the International Community. Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are now housing large and growing numbers of Syrian refugees, many of whom have attempted to move towards Europe in search of better conditions. Turkey hosts more than 2.8 million refugees from Syria, more than any other country in the world and more than half the refugee population in the region. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, the United States has resettled a mere fraction (only 10,000 to date) of nearly a 5 million Syrians in need. People from Syria have also been repeatedly trying to seek refuge in European Nations (apart from Turkey) such as Germany, Greece etc., sometimes legally and even illegally at the huge price by putting their life at stake. However, with more and more refugees seeking shelter, many of the above mentioned European Nations have refused to give asylum to the Syrian refugees mainly because of the threat to their own internal security as well as they already reeling under the pressure of heavy migration from other European Nations.

With a large part of Syria in ruins, millions of Syrians have fled abroad, and a population deeply traumatised by war, one thing is certain: Rebuilding Syria after the war ends shall be a lengthy and an extremely difficult process. Germany has started to seriously and actively contribute to the cause of Syrian Refugees. In 2014, Germany even allowed 20,000 asylums to Syrian refugees. Thus, in the light of such interesting as well as important state of affairs in the International Law domain, it is pertinent as well as important to identify and analyse the stand of India – an important voice in the International Arena as well as a powerful voice in the South Asian Region on the Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Civil War.


Amongst all the International Treaties on the rights of refugees, it is important to note that the paramount of them all is the United Nations Refugee Convention, 1951 (to which 145 nations are signatories) and the United Nations Refugees Convention Protocol, 1967 (to which 190 nations are signatories). As per Article 33 of the Refugee Convention of the year 1951 a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life and freedom. Now an interesting question that crops up is that what can India do if a Syrian Refugee or a group of such refugees turn up before India asking for refuge in the light of the Civil War in Syria. Or is India under any sort of Legal Obligation to provide refuge or asylum to such refugees?

India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and does not have a national refugee protection framework. Thus, India is not bound by the rules and obligations as established and pronounced by the said convention. Speaking in a strictly legal sense, India has no legal obligation to accept such Syrian Refugees if they turn up to India asking for an asylum. However, it does not mean that a Syrian Refugee cannot be granted asylum in India at all. However, such an asylum if granted would be very different from an asylum granted by any other Nation. As of August 2015, there were 39 refugees who had been granted asylum in India. However, such asylum had not been granted by the Government of India. While the government of India has given refuge to those like minorities from neighbouring countries, Tibetans and Sri Lankans, Syrian refugees, like Afghans, Iraqis, Rohingyas, Chins or Somalis need to register with the UNHCR. The UNHCR refugee card protects them both from forceful deportation or detention by the police. There is no domestic procedure or law that governs the protection of refugees in India. There is also no regional agreement of a binding nature such as the Organization for African Unity (OAU) Convention (1974) or a detailed declaration for refugee protection such as the Cartagena Declaration (1984) enacted in Central America. Refugees on Indian soil are rather subjected to the control provisions of domestic legislation such as the Passports Act of 1967 (Act No. 15), the Registration of Foreigners Act of 1939 (Act No. 16) and the Foreigners Act of 1946 (Act No. 31), all of which define a person of non-Indian nationality as a ‘foreigner’, independent of their specific legal status.

Now, despite the fact that India is neither a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor a signatory to its protocol of the Year 1967 it still is obliged to adhere to the principle of non-refoulement, which forms a crucial part of the customary international law. This obligation is further strengthened, as India is a signatory to the 1984 Torture Convention. However, the law or the enactment to bring into effect the provisions of the above convention is still pending as a bill before the Parliament and as such it has not acquired the nature of law in the Indian context.

If we carefully analyse the government of India’s stance of abstaining from granting any sort of asylum from their side to the Syrian Refugees there are many reasons as to why the government has opted for such a stance. Although, India is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention of the Year 1951 nor does it have a policy or a law with respect to the granting of an asylum to a refugee, but still India has always opened up its doors historically to refugees and Migrants whenever the Humanitarian need of the hour has called upon it to do so and Tibetan and the Bangladeshi refugees are the glaring examples of the same. India’s refugee policy is often praised worldwide and was termed by Antonio Gutierrez, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as an example for the world to follow. At the end of 2015, according to the United Nations refugee body, there were 2,07,861 persons of concern in India, out of which, 2,01,281 were refugees and 6,480 asylum seekers. These figures being official ones might be short by some thousands or a bit more because there might be a great number of such refugees living illegally inside India and who might have escaped the calculative figures mentioned above. Thus, India being a nation reeling under the pressure of its own population growth plus the legal as well as the illegal immigration from its troubled neighbourhood is actually not in a position to sustain the influx of such a huge population of refugees which might make their way to India if such an asylum is officially granted to them by the Government of India.

The other prominent reason why India has been rightly hesitant in taking any such step is the fear of the country being infiltrated by the dangerous ISIS terrorists who might camouflage themselves as refugees seeking refuge in India. As a nation, India is reeling under the threat of terrorism and hence it cannot at present compromise its internal security at any cost. Thus, we see that, despite India maintaining a neutral stance when it comes to Syria in the International Arena (so as to ensure that its own interests do not get sandwiched between the tussle that is there between the International Superpowers with respect to Syria),  it has not forgotten to send Humanitarian Aid in the form of food and necessary medicines apart from troops to Syria in order to help the people who are still stranded there. It has well balanced its interests between Moscow and New York. India was one of the nations which abstained from the UNSC resolution on Syrian Ceasefire.

Opposition to foreign intervention and support for state sovereignty (regardless of regime type) are long-held principles of India’s foreign policy that, by default, make India’s position favourable to the Assad government. In Syria and the Baathist regime in the country, India has time and again found a nation which has always supported its stand on Kashmir in the international arena. One of the major causes or reasons behind the non–opposition or rather “silent support” to the Syrian Government by New Delhi is India’s dependency on the region for the oil and natural gas sources which New Delhi views to more favourably placed with the current regime than with the rebels. A clean victory for the rebels in Syria will give a morale boost to certain other regional insurgents, potentially causing further instability which in itself threatens India’s 7 million migrant workers in the region.

Geopolitically, India also views Syria as an opportunity to strengthen its position as a potential security partner for Middle Eastern states (as it competes with both China and Pakistan). Reducing the spread of terrorism is a driver for India’s position on Syria. Delhi is likely more suspicious than the West with regard many Syrian rebel groups. There has also been an increased presence of Indian jihadists in the conflict. Amidst such situations and such interests at stake, India’s approach to Syria and the resultant refugee crisis can be said to be a well-calculated stand which is in line with its International Obligations to which it has obliged itself.

[1] Security Council Resolutions On Syria Vetoed by Russia: United Nations Security Council Resolution No S/2017/ 315; United Nations Security Council Resolution No S/2016/ 1026; United Nations Security Council Resolution No S/2016/ 846; United Nations Security Council Resolution No S/2014/ 348, United Nations Security Council Resolution No S/2012/ 538; United Nations Security Council Resolution No S/2012/ 77; United Nations Security Council Resolution No S/ 2011/612.

[2] Security Council Resolutions On Syria Vetoed by China:  United Nations Security Council Resolution No S/2016/ 1026; United Nations Security Council Resolution No; S/2014/ 348; United Nations Security Council Resolution No S/2012/ 538; United Nations Security Council Resolution No S/2012/ 77; United Nations Security Council Resolution No S/ 2011/612.

(Akash & Udaiveer are currently students at National Law University, Jodhpur.)