Sadio Sheikh, 28, is inconsolable when asked about her parents. A refugee from Somalia, she lives alone in Delhi. Just a mention of her parents unleashes a flood of dark memories she is unable to deal with. She does not want to talk about her parents, her past, why she left Somalia. But she is willing to talk about her life as a refugee in Delhi.
“It is tough being a single woman refugee in Delhi. I face a lot of hardships, and at times harassment; the biggest problem is most people here do not know who refugees are,” says Sheikh.
While Sheikh is not willing to discuss the harassment she faces, Neija from Myanmar, also a single woman refugee who lives in west Delhi’s Bodella village, is more forthcoming. “At times men follow me, they peek into my room. I do not know whom to turn to for support,” she says.
“A lot of people think refugees are some poor, illiterate foreigners and look down upon us. They do not appreciate the circumstances of our arrival here.”
Delhi is home to about half of the 24,000 refugees and 9,000 asylum seekers -- mostly Somalis, Syrians, Afghans, Burmese -- registered with UNHCR in India. Then there are about 8,000 Tibetans in the capital;4,500 of them live in Tibetan refugee colony at Majnu Ka Tila, now known as New Aruna Nagar.
Every refugee in Delhi has his or her own story, own experiences: while most Afghans talk of feeling at home in India, the Somalis feel marginalised and are mistaken for Nigerians.
But there are a few common threads -- lack of access to education, jobs and healthcare because of their not-so-clear legal status in India, which is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. There is no national refugee law, which means decisions on them are mostly administrative, and different groups of refugees are often treated differently.
The legal status of refugees in India is governed by the Foreigners Act 1946 and the Citizenship Act 1955. These Acts do not differentiate between refugees fleeing persecution and violence, and other foreigners. It is a criminal offence, under these Acts, to be without valid travel or residence documents.
“India has a long tradition of welcoming refugees. Although overall positive, refugee protection is delivered in an ad hoc manner through complementary legal and administrative structures in the absence of a clear domestic refugee law and policy framework,” says an UNHCR official. “We work with our partners to provide protection and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers in diverse areas such as health, education, legal aid, psychosocial counselling, vocational skills and livelihoods.”
The life of refugees in Delhi goes beyond stereotypical Afghan bakeries and other cultural symbolism. It is a life of daily struggle, a life where thousands of men, women (many of them singles) and refugee children are trying to adjust in a city where they are mostly misunderstood, have no legal rights -- and their only identity is a UNHCR refuge card or a registration certificate issued by the government.
There is hardly any local integration, and most of them establish social contacts either within their own and other refugee communities at Refugee Assistant Centres run by UNHCR’s partner organisations. About 550 refugees visit the Malviya Nagar centre alone every day to attend educational classes, Hindi and English lessons, and to seek help to access healthcare, counselling, etc.
“A lot of them suffer from post-traumatic stress and depression. These problems are less in Afghans as they are quite familiar with Indian culture. Normal therapy does not work with refugees because fundamentally their situation does not change and they are not sure of their future. Many of them are single without any support system,” says Preeti Chauhan , a clinical psychologist who counsels refugees.
The only document most carry is a UNHCR card. The only jobs they get are in the informal sector: casual workers, waiters, beauticians and security guards. Mohammad Usman, 34, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar who works as a casual labourer, says, “We are living in poor conditions; our own Chin brothers here seem to be better off than us. But we are happy, at least we feel safe,” says Usman.
Then there are those like Tenzin Tsering, 25, who lives in new Aruna Nagar. For her, India is the only home she knows. “My family fled Tibet but I was born in India, I want to live here and die here.” Would she like to settle in Tibet if it became independent? “I would certainly like to visit it, but I am not sure if I would like to settle there,” she says.
HOPE AND DESPAIR IN CAPITAL’S LITTLE MYANMAR
Neija, 24, has not been able to contact her parents ever since she fled to India in 2009 with a group of Burmese students. “I do not know how my parents are, where they are. Ours is one of the remotest villages in Myanmar,” says Neija, her eyes almost welling up. “I do not think I can ever meet them,” she says.
Neija, who belongs to the Chin community, lives in Bodella in West Delhi, home to about 4,000 Chin refugees. She has a BA in rural development and like many other educated refugees, works with an NGO as an interpreter.
Life in Delhi, she says, is tough and, given the opportunity, Neija would want to shift to the US. “I want to pursue higher education; my cousins live there, so I will have some support,” she says. “Here, I do not feel safe even in my room. Once a man tried to snatch my bag,” says Neija
What makes life difficult in Delhi is the fact that locals do not understand who refugees are. “We face discrimination on a daily basis. We are charged higher rents, shopkeepers inflate prices of everything,” says Neija.
Most Chin refugees have a story of daily struggle. Joseph Khar, 32, who lives with his wife in a cramped room in a narrow lane in Bodella, suffers from Hepatitis-C. He is immobile and the family survives on a subsistence allowance of Rs 3,800 from UNHCR. “The doctor prescribed a few medicines, but I do not have money. I hardly have money to pay for food and house rent,” says Khar, who came to Delhi in 2011.
As Khar talks, his wife, Ngaideilum, sitting next to him on the floor, listens, her eyes filled with hopelessness. “I wish I could have a job,” she says, stroking the hair of her five-year-old daughter.
Not far away lives Lian Khawen, 77, who came to India in 2010. He says he fled Burma after ‘facing persecution at the hands of military junta’. He lives in a tiny first-floor room with his wife, daughter and son. His 21-year-old son works at the house keeping department of a hotel. “He has been suffering from pneumonia but does not get any leave. My wife has kidney problems but all we can afford are these placebos,” says Khawen, showing us some herbal medicines.
“We have lost everything there. But I would be happy if my son and daughter could find a better future in India,” he says.
AFGHANS: YOUNG, AT HOME IN DELHI
Abdul Wali Ahadi, 22, who lives in Khirki Extension, had to repeat school after coming to India. He says he had already completed school in Afghanistan when his family came to India five years ago with his mother, two brothers and a sister. “No university was willing to give me admission because I did not have documents. Now I am doing BA first year through open university when I should have actually finished graduation,” says Ahadi.
Ahadi, who is pretty articulate and has a deep interest in international relations, says one of the biggest problems of young refugees is lack of education and job opportunities.
“Everyone demands a long term visa. We applied in January 2016 but are yet to get it,” says Ahadi. “We are in a peculiar situation in India, we are foreigners and yet we are not. Our only identity is the UNHCR refugee card,” says Ahadi.
There are many youngsters in the Afghan community who want to settle down in India, many aspire for jobs, others want to do business.
“We came to India one-and-a-half years back because of the bad security situation in our country. My family depends on the meagre income of my brother who works as a photo editor. I want to settle down and do business in India,” says Ahmad Seyar Bakhshi, 18, who lives in Tilak Nagar with his family.
Elias Sidiqi, 20, who also lives in Tilak Nagar with his father, mother, two sisters and three brothers, is doing his 12th through open school. His family, he says, survives on money sent by relatives. Sidiqi says his neighbours in Delhi are always ready to help. Like Ahadi, he too believes the Indian government could help by easing norms of long-term visas. “It will give us some sense of stability. I would be happy spending the rest of my life in Delhi,” he says.
A CRISIS OF IDENTITY: SOMALIS, BUT SEEN AS NIGERIANS
Sadio Sheikh, 28, came to India in 2007 when she was 18. She was in Hyderabad and came to Delhi two years back. Sheikh, who completed her post graduation in medical laboratory technology through distant education in Hyderabad, thought the capital would be a better place for her, especially in terms of livelihood opportunities. She applied for jobs at various hospitals, appeared for many interviews, but never got through. “One of the biggest problems we face here is that we are mistaken as Nigerians”.
Sheikh, who lives in India alone, says she has been able to survive in India thanks to her aunt in Kenya, who supported her financially all these years.
“As a single refugee woman, I face a lot of hardships. I would be happy to return to my country once the situation is normal. What I am desperately looking for us right now is financial security and stability,” says Sheikh.
But Shukri Aden, 47, another refugee woman from Somalia, has a positive experience. She came to India two years back after her husband and daughter were killed in the conflict there. She lives in Wazirbad, where most of the city’s 600-odd Somali refugees live. Her children go to a government school. “They are quite popular with their teachers and are doing well in studies,” says Aden, who gets Rs 2,000 a month for each child from UNHCR. She earns by doing odd jobs -– cleaning homes, washing dishes for Somalis who visit Delhi for medical treatment.
Aden who heads the community’s women group has learnt to speak quite a bit of Hindi too. “If possible I want to live in India forever. I feel loved and safe in this country,” she says, talking to us through an interpreter. “One of my children wants to be a doctor and the other a businessman. I hope both of them are able to realize their dreams in India.”