India is home to about 2,50,000 refugees. Resettlement is a long-term solution. Given the rather limited slots offered by resettlement countries, and the millions of refugees globally, access to resettlement is often very limited, says UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Associate External Relations Officer (New Delhi) Nayana Bose.
Native is foreign to them
At times, home is the ground beneath your feet. Displaced and divided by ethnic and political turmoil in countries that often turn into a flashpoint, about 2,50,000 people from different cultural mores are taking refuge in the world’s largest democracy, India.
Some refugees, like the Tibetans, have been living here for over four decades, pursuing a peaceful movement for autonomy from China. Some have resigned to their fate, hoping to resettle in a third country. Together, they all share the same dream — a journey back to their motherland. “Can you ever forget your birthplace, the land where you grew up and your family and friends live? Can you ever forget your mother?’” asks 50-year-old Syed Mohammed Naiim Hashimi, an ethnic Afghan refugee living in Delhi since the late 80s.
Of the 2,50,000 refugees, more than 1 lakh Tibetans and 80,000 Sri Lankan Tamils are entitled to government protection while 12,000 are being taken care of by the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR). They include refugees from Myanmar, Afghanistan, Palestinian refugees from Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Delhi is home to over 17,000 refugees (about 11,500 under UNHCR mandate). Adaptation of a new culture in a new city is a way of life for these refugees. But home is where the heart is.
Burmese | 1800 Refugees in Delhi
‘My father passed away in ’99, but I could not go’
“It is tough… leading a refugee life. There is a sense of helplessness,” says 27-year-old Lucy Siang (name changed), a Burmese refugee who belongs to the Chin tribe.
“I was a student. I had to flee Myanmar in 1998 after being hounded by the military. I first went to Bangalore to complete my studies and then came to Delhi in 2002,” Lucy said.
“It is difficult living alone — without your family. If things improve I would go back. I keep thinking about my mother and brother who are back home. I have lost touch with them. My father passed away in 1999, but I could not go,” she said.
Asked about life in Delhi, Lucy said, “We can move about freely. If I don’t like something, I can speak out. This was unthinkable in Myanmar. But in the beginning, it was difficult. I had to explain everything through sign language. People misbehaved because we looked and dressed differently. With the passage of time, I have managed to ignore these things.”
Lucy is among the lucky few who have found work in Delhi. She works in a call centre. Many Burmese refugees live in one-room tenements. With dwindling financial resources and subsidies from UNHCR, they are finding it hard to make ends meet.
Besides, India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Since a work permit is out of question, these refugees are doing odd jobs in the unroganised sector, as salesmen, plumbers and tailors. Some even work in restaurants and tea stalls.
They started coming to India since 1989.
Reason : Military crackdown following the 1988 Democracy Uprising. Most of them are pro- democracy activists. They faced persecution at the hands of the military junta.
In Delhi, the majority of them live in Vikaspuri, Janakpur, Hastsal, and Uttam Nagar.
What do they do : Work as interpreters, security guards, and in restaurants or
Tibetans | 6,000 Refugees in Delhi
Who will fight for our country?
Majnu Ka Tila is a Tibetan refugee colony. Most Tibetans have been living here for the last 46 years. The third-generation Tibetans have only heard of their native place. Dolkar Tsering, an 81-year-old, moved to India with her husband and son in 1961. “I used to knit sweaters and sell it for a living,” she said. Today, Tserings run the Dolma Restaurant here. So, have they settled here? Dolkar’s son Tobdan says, “If we take citizenship, who will fight for our country.”
They started coming to India in the early 60s
Reason : Military invasion of Tibet in 1959.
Most of them live in Majnu Ka Tila and North Delhi.
What do they do :Most of them run restaurants or do odd jobs.
Afghan| 9,263 Refugees in Delhi
3,000 await citizenship
The majority of refugees in Delhi are from Afghanistan. The ethnic Tajiks and Pashtuns want to be resettled in a third country. But the Hindu and Sikh Afghan want to settle down here. Till date, 69 Afghan refugees have secured Indian citizenship while 3,000 are still waiting. Mahbuba Faqueery, her husband and three children have been living in Jungpura Extn since 1996. She fled Kabul after her eldest son was kidnapped. She and her husband work as interpreters in Apollo Hospital now. “Life has improved. But we don’t want to live a refugee’s life forever.”
They started coming to India in the early 80s.
Reason : Many fled after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghan-istan. Many arrived after the Taliban came to power.
Most of them live in Lajpat Nagar, Jungpura.
What do they do : Interpreters, salesperson, at tea stalls, driver, mechanics, or into textile business.
Somalia/Congo | 140 Refugees in Delhi
Business then, misery now
A few years ago, 50-year-old Judith Mukoka (name changed) was a well-settled businesswoman in Kinshasa, the capital of Democratic Republic of Congo. “I had a jewellery and garment business. I was doing well, living in my own house, and my children were going to school. All that has changed,” she said.
During the civil war there, Judith was arrested for participating in a protest march. The government targeted her family. “I fled Kinshasa with my three children. With the help of an agent, I managed to reach Delhi,” she said. They share a cramped two-room tenement with three relatives in Hauz Rani in Malviya Nagar. “It’s a living hell. I don’t have any work. My children have discontinued their studies. I am somehow feeding my family of four with the UNHCR allowance. It’s not enough. The rent here is so high, ” she said.
It’s not just the financial crunch. “Living in Delhi is very difficult. We don’t follow the language. Everything here is so different —the culture, eating habits. When we go out, people call us names because of our skin color. It’s so humiliating. I have stopped venturing out during daytime,” said Judith.
Her 14-year-old daughter, Christel is learning English at a centre for refugees, run by Don Bosco. Christel helped this correspondent strike a conversation with Judith by translating Lingala (their language) into English.
Like Judith, many other refugees from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia are eking out a living in the dingy lanes of Hauz Rani.
They started coming in early 2000.
Reason : Civil war in their country.
In Delhi, the majority of them live in Hauz Rani in Malviya Nagar
What do they do : Because of language problem, most of them have failed to get any work.
Palestinians | 142 Refugees in Delhi
No fear of Iraqi militia here
Basima Ageel Muflih Hassan (48) is a Palestinian who fled Iraq after threats from an Iraqi militia. She landed in Delhi with her 14-year-old daughter in March last year. “I came here because I was told that India is a safe place. Though there is no fear of the militia here, Delhi is very expensive. I have serious health problems, but don’t have the money to go for treatment. Whatever little allowance I get is used to fund my daughter’s education. She is studying in an Iraqi school in South Delhi,” she said.
Dhia Noor Mowafak, another refugee from Iraq, came to Delhi with his family of four last year after Shia militants kidnapped his son and asked him to leave Iraq. “I had a flourishing taxi service business in Baghdad. We were living in a big flat provided by the government. My children were going to good schools,” he said. All that has changed. Mowafak’s three children have not been to school for about a year now. “I have failed to find work because I don’t know the local language. We are living in a two-room flat in Dwarka and making ends meet with a meager assistance of Rs 5,240 from UNHCR,” he said, hoping for resettlement in a third country.
They started coming in 2006.
Reason : There were targeted by the Iraqi Shia militia after the fall of the Saddam Hussein government. The Palestinian refugees are Sunni.
In Delhi, most of them live in Kishangarh in Vasant Kunj. A few families live in Dwarka.
What do they do : Most of them are unemployed.