Their bags packed, the Sri Lankan family in a photograph being exhibited by UNHCR is ready to go. Raghu Rai poses them, smiling against a vibrant background decorated with toys. There are around 35,000 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in India, most of who will never return to their homeland. Through an exhibition of 10 photographs at Alliance Francaise in Delhi, to mark World Refugee Day tomorrow, UNHCR seeks to shed light on lives unfolding in parenthesis.
World politics and Delhi’s increasing apathy towards “foreigners” give the exhibition its context and layers. One photograph freezes a sack race for Rohingya women near the finishing line. A burqa-clad woman has the lead. World commentators refer to Rohingya Muslims as “Asia’s boat people” and “a people without a country”. Stripped of citizenship by the government in Myanmar, they are fleeing persecution in thousands of rickety boats or on feet. Those who come to India are said to use the porous border with Bangladesh. In Delhi, the Rohingya are spread around slums in Madanpur Khadar and Shaheenbag, among others, where living conditions are abject and access to growth, limited. A photograph shows a group of Rohingya women, dressed traditionally and conservatively, bent over a piece of glitzy embroidery that provides some livelihood.
Several images cut across age groups of refugees from Afghanistan, along with those from Myanmar. Most refugees in India come from Afghanistan and Myanmar. Young boys are captured mid-celebration in one image; another shows Goodwill Ambassador John Abraham teaching them his Bollywood moves. In a community centre in Delhi, Hindu and Sikh refugees from Afghanistan are caught at the start of a new life — filling forms for citizenship of India. In another photograph, two Somali girls smile into the camera with an Afghan girl as nationalities meet in community centres in Delhi.
Smiles are frequent in the exhibition, frequently weighed with irony. In one powerful image, a Sri Lankan man in a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu poses against a rickety shelf that contains all his belongings — a mug, toothbrushes in a holder, blue washing soap and a few folded clothes.