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A sound night's sleep: Afghans hope for equal refugee benefits in India

India has provided refuge to Afghans fleeing war and persecution for over a decade. (Image credit: Flickr Resolute Support Media) Photograph: (Others)

WION New Delhi, India Mar 14, 2017, 09.43 AM (IST) Devanshi Verma

Afrooz* lives in a compact 1-BHK (bedroom, kitchen, hall) apartment in one of south Delhi's sprawling urban villages, Khirkee Extension. She shares the space with nine other family members. Something permeates the air in the living room — rotting yogurt and fermented rice. She offers me naan (Afghani flatbread) and Qorma — especially made for me. Ten others sit for the meal with me, but we eat in silence. A palpable sadness floats around us.

In 1994, when Afrooz was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, her middle class family could not afford luxuries, but they had a good life. Her family could afford a good education for the children, owned a decent house, two cars and had a regular income.

What could go wrong? Probably nothing. But everything did.

"War and unrest dawned upon our lives. I could hear continuous gunfire echoes from outside the house. My classmate was shot in a market during the daytime. Another friend was kidnapped and never seen again. Terror was in the air but I only felt numb. I had no clue why it was happening. I had started getting accustomed to the smell of gunpowder and the sight of blood. One day, dacoits entered our house. In my heart, I knew this was the end of us. My mother shushed us. The women hid in cupboards and under the beds. It turned out they weren’t dacoits, but they came with a warning. 'Leave before they come for you' they said. I knew it was the Taliban. The question in my mind was — why us? We have never hurt anyone."

Afrooz's faith it turned out disqualified her from claiming the land of her birth and that of her forefathers her homeland. Her family are followers of the Bahai religion — considered unfit for the Islamic state.

"I loved my country, my hometown, my house, my room. I miss everything I left behind. But we were lucky enough to get a new start in India unlike the thousands still stuck in the terrors of the war. There was hope for a better, brighter future. We had heard stories about the greatness of India — a generous land that embraces many cultures."

Afrooz and 10 members of her family made their way into India in batches, entering the country on medical, and tourist visas. India allows people to migrate without prior permissions if their lives are in danger.

From 15,917 Afghan refugees residing in India in 1998 to the 10,340 currently in India, Afghans fleeing war and persecution have found themselves safe and welcome here.

"India abides by Article 31 of the Refugee Convention which permits the treatment of refugees. It exempts them from penalties for illegal entry when they come directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened. However, there is no law concerning refugees in the country. Their status is governed by guidelines stated under Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939. Although India is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and 1967 Protocol, it has followed a very liberal refugee policy which adheres to the underlying principles of international refugee law," lawyer Yateesh Begoore Shivaswamy, told WION.


Stay in India: In safety, but without jobs 

Afrooz has been in India for five years now. "People are extremely warm and helpful. However, our problems are countless. Indian government does not have laws for refugees. We are at the mercy of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). A refugee card issued by the organisation is our only identity proof. False promises (by UNHCR) of education, employment, income, health-care facilities were made to be broken. We are not eligible to even buy a sim card, forget about a bank account. My father is the only bread-earner of the family — he works in a bakery for Rupees 8000 a month. He has to support a nine-member family. The demonetisation period was tortuous. We are financially dependent on my uncle who sends money from Germany to supplement our family income. What if he decides to stop some day? What will we do then?"


Refugee Card issues by UNHCR is valid for two years. It is not useful to get a SIM card or bank account (WION)


As refugees, they are not eligible for formal education or employment unless they have a long-term visa.

"Promises were made but never fulfilled. Some Afghanis who have been in India for two years still don’t have refugee cards. They promise us unskilled jobs. UNHCR pays beauty parlours to train us, but we never get jobs."

As time passed things kept getting worse instead of improving.

"My sister was called in for an interview in Dilshad Garden (a neighbourhood in east Delhi) set up by the UNHCR. When she reached the venue, a strange man with possibly bad intentions waited for her in a dark room with strange lighting and music. She had to run. Saying that we live a poor, below dignity life is an understatement. I am a citizen... of this planet. I hate being called a refugee. I hate not having a home," she said, her eyes welling up.

India is on the verge of granting citizenship to Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan who have sought refuge from religious persecution. 

"They are granting citizenship to persecuted Hindus. We as Muslims do not feel very welcomed. The Indian government doesn't take care of us." said Aman Zaidi, 30, who fled Afghanistan in hope of a better future for his sons. He has taught himself the languages spoken locally (Hindi and English) and now works as an interpreter for Afghan medical tourists at hospitals. 


Chaos, hope, fresh starts

In spite of the ongoing social and political mayhem, the community has been able to make space for itself. The refugees that landed in India earlier watch out for the new arrivals. Afrooz's father got a house and job through another Sikh refugee from Afghanistan.

In a back alley of Lajpat Nagar, a sprawling market area in south Delhi, is Afghan Market or Kabul street. Shop boards in Dari transcript, modest looking restaurants with fancy interiors, separate seating areas for men and women, playlists of Hindi, English and Pashto songs, general stores with supplies from United Arab Emirates (UAE), scent of Kabuli pulao - the place is a safe haven for Afghan refugees. 


Shops in Lajpat Nagar's Afghan market have signboards in English and Dari language (WION)



Naseem manages a street-vend of Afghani snacks. He offered me to try Bolani Gandana (a stuffed, deep fried bread). A tentative attempt to initiate a conversation revealed that Naseem was a rather garrulous man who had landed in India just a month ago. "I have a friend who has taken refuge here. He runs a restaurant and is helping me financially. The situation in Afghanistan is horrible. Here I am able to earn twice the amount I used to earlier working as a cook. I plan to bring my entire family over." 
"I love India. I have been a fan of Bollywood movies," he explained his ease in Hindi by telling this reporter about his love for Hindi films and actor Ajay Devgan. 

Naseem then insisted that I visit his friend's restaurant and have lunch there — typical of the largesse of his people.


Naseem makes a decent living through a street-stall of Afghani snacks. He wants to bring his family to India soon (WION)



Twenty-year-old Ahmed arrived in India recently. His employer warned him to be careful with strangers. The shy young man took a while to open up. "I don't have a refugee card," he said while cooking bread in the clay oven of a small eatery.

He hopes to start a new life here. "I come from Mazar-e-Sharif. A guy helped me escape. My family is still there. We all couldn't afford to come, so they sent me. I would want to see them again, but I don't want to go back to Afghanistan. It is terrifying to even think about it. I hope I can do enough to call them here," he smiled. 

Young or old, there is one common strain in all conversations — the luxury of a sound night's sleep without the fear of mortars and bombs tearing into homes.

"My hometown was beautiful. I have grown up admiring the natural  beauty around me. But things got out of control there. You can die any moment. Delhi is very crowded and they blare horns too loudly. But at least I can sleep without worrying at night. In other countries, they start firing on refugee boats. India has given us a home to live. We might not be citizens, but this is now our home," 60-year old Hameed told WION.

Others headed back to India because it was their natural home. When the Sikh community found itself under attack by the Taliban, many of them made a long and arduous journey to the land of their forefather. Harmeet Chhabra, now a naturalised Indian citizen, came to India 24 years ago. "Our shop in Kabul was looted. We travelled on foot for 10 days in a group of 50. Our shop was raided and several friends and their families were killed. We did not know anyone in India. Initially, we took refuge in the Golden Temple in  Amritsar. It has been a long journey." Today, Chhabra runs a chemist store in Delhi.

Today the community finds shelter for some and homes for others in Delhi neighbourhooda like Lajpat Nagar, Bhogal, Saket, Tilak Nagar and Wazirabad. Wazirabad is where most Hindu and Sikh Afghans have settled down, driven from their homeland in 1991 by the Afghan Mujahideen during the rule of Mohammad Najibullah which were the early days of the Taliban.


From a place away from home, the Afghan refugees use their culinary skills to build new lives for themselves (WION)



What the law says

In terms of international obligations, as a consequence of its accession to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Government of India has some obligations towards the economic status of refugees. The Covenant guarantees everyone’s – including refugees’ – right to work. However, it may be noted that the Covenant provides a caveat wherein “developing countries, with due regard to human rights and their national economy, may determine to what extent they would guarantee the economic rights".

"Refugees who fled their home country in fear of genuine threats are eligible for Long Term Visa (LTV). A refugee holding a long term visa is permitted to take up employment in the private sector or undertake studies in any academic institution." Shivaswamy added. 


Equal status for all refugees?

The feasibility of legislation, however, remains a political question and whether Parliament would see fit to enact such legislation is hard to surmise. The ‘Asylum Bill 2015’ introduced in the Lok Sabha by MP Shashi Tharoor proposes fair treatment and just manner consistent with the guarantees of equality, fairness and due process of law for all refugees.

The procedure of determining who qualifies as a refugee is unsure. While the government decides refugee status for fugitives from regions like Sri Lanka and Tibet, refugees from other regions need to approach UNHCR office. This has given rise to an inconsistent approach towards different nationalities, and an asylum policy that, on the whole, lacks uniformity.

The community also claims discrimination and partiality when it comes to issuing refugee cards among refugees of different nationalities.

"All refugees are not treated equally by the UNHCR. It is way easier for other communities to get basic documentation," Afrooz's brother, Faraz said.

Clearly, there are loopholes in the system to implement policies in the interest of refugees.

*Some names have been changed to protect identity


Devanshi Verma

Devanshi is a freelance feature writer. When not writing, she loves to travel and explore food cultures across geographies.

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