Asef has a degree in engineering from the Polytechnic University in Kabul and had a good life back home. A refugee now, he ekes out a living by supplying food to restaurants and can barely make ends meet.
After the Taliban took over, Asef had to flee in 2006. But for the 38-year-old, his trails were far from over. Because the Indian government doesn’t provide refugees with residence allowance or a work permit, Asef’s problems have only mounted in the last couple of years.
Aaisha, Asef’s wife, who has a bachelor’s in English Literature, says: “We had to flee Afghanistan because we felt insecure. We were in danger. But in New Delhi, we have found fewer chances of subsistence and employment.”
Providing refuge for 25 years
Thousands of Afghan nationals have sought refuge in India over the last 25 years. Among them a majority are Sikh and Hindu refugees. About 200 of these have become naturalised citizens of India. But for the ethnic Afghans, the road is a long one. The culture is different and there are language barriers, and they want to be resettled elsewhere, a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) official says.
Want to go home but can’t
Ali (26), also escaped from Afghanistan. “Rebels beheaded my brother in 2007. I had no choice but to flee and seek asylum here,” he says. “But I’m absolutely shocked at my circumstances.” He used to be a professional kick boxer and won the Asian Kickboxing Competition in Dubai in 2004. He also won a bronze medal in the International Kickboxing Competition in India the same year. Ali now works in a car workshop in Delhi and earns Rs 1,500 a month. He can’t afford rented accommodation and sleeps in the workshop, he said.
Many Afghan refugees, who are now vendors or hawkers in the city, held prominent positions in Afghanistan before they were forced to leave. Some returned to Afghanistan only to sneak into India once again. Conditions back home are still unstable, they say.
Perkashkor (35), mother of three, came to Delhi during the Taliban regime. After her husband abandoned her recently, she was forced to look for odd jobs in order to provide for her family. “I really want to go back. But due to insecurity there, I can’t,” she says.
After the UNHCR reduced monetary assistance for Afghan refugees in 1998, thousands were impoverished and driven into debt. The Indian government’s failure to provide aid added to the woes of the refugees, who are concentrated in parts of West Delhi and near Nizamuddin Basti, where a lot of Muslim refugees, including Bangladeshis, live.
Laminated piece of hope
Iraqi refugee Rafed Kadhim’s identity is a laminated blue sheet of paper given to him by the UNHCR that states he is a recognised refugee, which he always carries with him. No protection against detention for being illegally present in India, the paper, Kadhim hopes, will at least establish him as somebody ¿ a vulnerable Iraqi refugee who has nowhere to go.
He fled Iraq with his family in 2006 after some of his relatives were killed by extremists for allegedly helping American soldiers.
The family sold ice blocks to the Iraqi and American armies in Baghdad, where they owned a factory. When their unit was burned down by extremists and he was labelled a traitor, the family fled to neighbouring Syria and then Jordan, but with no visas they could not stay in these countries for long. The family then came to India, hoping the UNHCR will help them settle somewhere finally.
But the wait has only begun.
In a crammed one-bedroom tenement that Kadhim shares with his wife and three children in Krishna Nagar, the family has been marking days off the calendar. It has been two years already. Another 99 Iraqi refugees are also waiting for the UNHCR to make a decision.
“They tell me to wait. I am afraid for my family,” he says. The blue paper, which allows only for temporary stay in India, is renewed every 18 months.
A UNHCR official said the paper, though not a legal permit recognised by the Indian government, is respected by officials aInd so far no cases of harassment or exploitation have been reported. The paper, however, can’t get Kadhim a job or a decent apartment.
At first, he sold his laptop, then his wife sold all her gold jewellery, and then they pawned little things to stay afloat. The UNHCR’s subsistence allowance of Rs 4,600 is just enough to pay the rent.
Like most Iraqi refugees living in the area, Kadhim, who speaks little English and almost no Hindi, feels secure in the neighbourhood. “I can’t go back. I am not moving any further. I have no money. I can’t work either,” he says.
Waiting for third country resettlement
In the back alleys of Aslat Pur Gaon in Janakpuri, where houses stand neck to neck and several have the same number, Chin Chin and Plato, both Chin refugees from Myanmar, are awaiting their fate. The two came to Delhi after spending months in a refugee camp in Mizoram, hoping to get their cases approved for third country resettlement in countries including the United States or European nations.
But in Plato’s case, it has been seven years.
Without a work permit, he has been working in the informal sector, where many such refugees are often exploited and work for hours and in horrible conditions without decent pay. Often, they survive on leftovers from the weekly vegetable markets, Plato says. “We are like beggars,” he says.
“India does not give refugees the formal right to work but all refugees have access to work in the informal sector. This sector, according to recent media reports, constitutes 86 per cent of India’s economy,” Nayana Bose, from UNHCR’s Delhi office, says.
There are more than 50,000 illegal Chin refugees from Myanmar in Mizoram, according to Chin Chin, who works for the Chin Human Rights Organisation and operates out of a small apartment in Aslat Pur Gaon. The number of these refugees has increased in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and the famine in Chin state, she says.
In a small dingy room with no windows, Si Pen, a Chin refugee, is keeping her fingers crossed. Her case for recognised refugee status in India has been rejected four times by the UNHCR.
Pen fears persecution in Myanmar. But without refugee status, she can’t fend for herself. Her son works in the informal sector and earns Rs 1,000 a month, which is not enough for the family, she said.