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Nowhere to go

The drifters: On World Refugee Day, HT asked migrants from all over the world on what keeps them going in India without any fixed address, choice employment and lack of acceptance. Paramita Ghosh and Shubhi Vijay report.

delhi Updated: Jun 20, 2011 01:30 IST

Each time he tells his story, a Palestinian refugee realises that the olive tree of his imagination and the one in his story are two different trees. And after five years from away home, it is possible that he is sick of them.

His instincts are to re-launch himself in the country of his exile. But as what?

Lack of funds are turning Somalian refugees into a community of plate-makers, refugees from Mynanmar into cushion traders, and many Afghans into rolling the traditional Afghani bread at roadside dhabas. “It’s a pity. We have Afghan geologists, mechanical engineers and computer professionals with us,” points put a NGO worker who works with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Dario (name changed), an African refugee, mentions “getting a job with Wipro” but had to turn it down without a work permit. The ‘only difference’ that staying in India has made to his life is that compared to Afghanistan, it is safer’, says Taregh Firouzi, an Afghan.

India, says Mary Neihkim, has given residence permits to many Myanmarese, but "after that the problems start." So, when you see her picture holding up a cushion with a smile, do know that it’s not the entire story.

As of May 2011, there are 15,914 refugees in India. Under UNHCR’s protection, there are nearly 6,000 asylum seekers. The Indian government also recognises and assists around 200,000 Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees. But ‘recognition’ has not been kept, or made, with substantial employment in mind. It just allows refugees to work in the informal economy — not the ideal paymaster. (Read case study, Ahmed Abdi).

“India has not ratified the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and does not have a national refugee legal framework in place and refugee policy is decided on an ad hoc basis,” say UNHCR officials.

“The government is currently discussing a draft national refugee law. The number of refugees and asylum seekers under UNHCR’s care have also increased substantially over the last few years and its resources have not increased at the same rate.”

There have been some positive changes. "Earlier, refugee children would not get admission in government schools, now they do," says Firouzi. "The process of getting the white card is faster, we can get it in 2-3 months." What about citizenship? Most refugees say that is one question they have learnt not to ask.


Refugee population from Somalia in India

2009: 655 2011: 738

Ahmed Abdi, 23

Lila Samad, 19, will not show her face to the camera so fellow Somalian Ahmed Abdi tells his story. His story is not very different from hers — nor from any refugee from Somalia, a country that since the 90s has been wracked by civil war. Members of a minority clan in Somalia, both Lila and Ahmed are — or were — residents of Mogadishu.

They recall a common experience of fear, days of flight (“wherever we could run, we ran,”) and a feeling of relief when they arrived in India. But now, Lila cannot sleep. And Ahmed is tired of being stuck.

Ahmed’s brother was already in Delhi so the family followed him here five years ago. What does his brother do? “He stays at home,” he replies. Ahmed does a little better. Most refugees who work as ‘community animators’ like Ahmed earn a monthly salary of Rs 6-8,000. His or his brother’s options for work are limited. “India does not recognise refugees’ right to work,” he says.

The refugee’s Blue Card (see box The Right Card) is hardly a magic key; it opens few doors. “Wherever we go, even to rent a house, property dealers ask for a visa or a passport. My visa has expired. If I were to get it extended, I will be asked why…” says Ahmed. So — and he leaves this unsaid — he would rather not go for a visa extension.

He doesn’t want to answer so many questions. But the questions never stop. “ ‘Why do I wear a scarf?’ ‘Can they touch my hair under my scarf?’ ‘Is my hair curly or straight?’” says Lila in exasperation remembering her days in a government school when she first came to Delhi. “I changed after I came here,” she says. “I have been called a Negro. Sometimes I feel I’m not a human being. I learnt not to mix.”

Ahmed wants to be a businessman. But few Indians will enter into a financial collaboration with a Somalian, he rues. “I don’t know how but I see Afghans opening shops, restaurants and businesses in India.”

Because he cannot figure it out, it deepens his sense of alienation — of not only being unwanted by India but being less wanted as compared to other people.


Gagandeep Singh Alagh, 24

Gagandeep Singh Alagh’s father was shot in the arm for standing out in a crowd. The Alaghs are Hindu Sikh Afghans — in India that is a point in their favour.

“In Afghanistan, we looked distinctively different. After the Kabul bombings, racial discrimination became intolerable. We couldn’t step out of the house. People would throw stones at us. Here we don’t even get a second glance,” recalls Gagandeep’s mother, Jalwant Kaur.

According to UNHCR’s 2010 figures, 655 Hindu Sikhs have been granted citizenship. This family is, however, not one of them.

Their application has been pending for the past four years. Jalwant is worried about her kids and the lack of permanence in their lives. Gagandeep, too, stresses over the insecurity of their makeshift existence. “I want to buy a house for my mother. I want to set-up a small shop. I can’t do all this on a six month visa.”

This Sikh-Afghan household can fluently converse in Punjabi, Hindi, Kabuli and Pashto. “We speak in a mix of all four languages,” says the elder daughter, Taranjeet Kaur.

The younger one, Kirandeep Kaur is studying in Class XI and wants to become a fashion designer. She proudly talks about the red and white frock she stitched for her doll. She hopes to start a boutique one day.

The smiles on their faces are one of content. They are content being one of the many faces in the crowd in this country.


Refugee population from Iraq in India

2009: 130 2011: 115

Surviving is not living, but Noor is, let’s say, not unhappy to be in India. Her first choice after fleeing Iraq after the fall of Saddam’s rule and the American invasion was another Arab country such as Syria. But she did not want to be boxed in a refugee camp, she says.

“After Saddam went, Iraqis started having problems with Palestinians settled in Iraq…we are grateful for what we have. Even when other Arab states didn’t take us, India did.”

What Noor says and what Noor means is mediated through a translator so her conversation lands in our lap in a condensed one-liner. Perhaps, it is too much to expect mood and colour from Palestinians, the people who have suffered repeated displacement from ‘home’.

So when Noor — a Palestinian Iraqi born in Baghadad — mentions ‘problems’ with Iraqis, she understandably glosses over the more immediate story of indignity and humiliation.

Given this background, she seems grateful for small mercies. Mr and Mrs Zoyete now lives on the tuition that her husband gives to Arab refugee students. “We are surviving, we are managing,” she says with a half-smile.


Refugee population from Myanmar in India

2009: 2952 2011: 5624

Mary Neihkim started her journey from Myanmar to Delhi on foot in 2007. It took her a week. Learning to speak Hindi or English may take longer. “Mary is a Chin. The Chin are shy. They take time to trust. Everyday disputes due to lack of communication need to be settled, so we help them,” says Chetan Krishna of Project AARAMBH, a student body of IIT- Delhi, whose group, SIFE (Students In Free Enterprise) helps Myanmar refugees maintain “sustainable existence” in India.

The Chin are an ethnic group from western Myanmar. Neihkim, a Chin, has a shy manner, but the former teacher manages to hold her own. The president of Central Chin Women Organisation (CCWO), which works in association with AARAMBH, she shows us around the work area in Vikaspuri.

“We don’t really have an office but gather at random places. But we make do. Our aim is to help,” she says. They do so by finding a market for the scarves, bags, purses and other knick-knacks that Myanmarese women weave at home.

‘Home’ naturally brings forth memories — not all happy. The forced labour, arbitrary arrests, religious repression after the declaration of military rule changed made many Chins like Neihkim run to India. Military torture is one of the main reasons why many are fleeing Myanmar, she says.

Hnemiang, a farmer who has turned a weaver in India, is another instance. She came to India in 2008. The life of a refugee is a life of compromise, of making do with little, of watching dreams die — and all in the name of survival.

Hnemiang’s son wanted to be a doctor. He is now a a waiter, a job that just about manages to pay the rent. Hnemiang’s daughter is studying in Norway. “The government of Norway provides for the refugees. The Indian government does not. I can’t even travel to meet her. The visa is the problem.”

The UNHCR can’t help as the request is out of their mandate and travelling to Myanmar to get a visa is not an option. Family life is a casualty for all refugees. Neihkim wants to see her brother and mother in Myanmar but she dare not go back.

“Myanmar is not an option. I wish I could bring them here.”

First Published: Jun 20, 2011 00:01 IST