Falling short: How India treats those seeking refuge

Updated on Sep 14, 2015 10:16 AM IST

Outrage over the treatment of Syrian refugees should prompt Indians to look at how those who now seek refuge here are treated. Not very well it turns out

A Rohingya Muslim woman cooks in a semi-dismantled house, after they were forced to give up a section of their refugee camp area by local authorities, at a refugee camp in Kalandi Kunj area of New Delhi, India, on Thursday, September 10, 2015. (Photo by Gurinder Osan/ Hindustan Times)
A Rohingya Muslim woman cooks in a semi-dismantled house, after they were forced to give up a section of their refugee camp area by local authorities, at a refugee camp in Kalandi Kunj area of New Delhi, India, on Thursday, September 10, 2015. (Photo by Gurinder Osan/ Hindustan Times)
Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi
The image of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi sparked an outpouring of support for Syrian refugees last week. While sympathy is spontaneous in the face of extreme human suffering, it must be recognised that providing shelter, food, a livelihood, education and healthcare is often difficult for host countries. India has offered shelter to refugees at different points but life definitely isn't easy for those who do come here. "The Syrian boy died once, we die every day of our lives here," says Abida (36), a Somali refugee, who has been in India for the past seven years.

Asad (21), a Rohingya refugee, who has been here for the past three years, is also struggling to come to terms with a life lacking in dignity. "I want education, a livelihood, and a place to live. This can hardly be called shelter," he says, speaking in clear English. The settlement in Madanpur Khadar is low in amenities even by slum standards. The roads are potholed, there are no streetlights, and the stench of garbage hangs in the air. "There is no security. A few days back, a resident was attacked with a blade by a local. The police didn't even file an FIR," says Asad. He earns Rs 11,500 working as a language interpreter at one of UNHCR's partner organisations and cannot hope to take on a job that pays more as employers want residence proof for police verification and he has none. "We can't even get a SIM card. We pay Rs 100 to Indians to get us one with their identity cards," he says.

As of August, 2015, there are 27,000 refugees and 6,000 asylum seekers in India registered with the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR). "The biggest group of refugees registered with us in India are from Myanmar, Afghanistan and Somalia," says Shuchita Mehta of UNHCR. Then there are the religious minorities from neighbouring countries, Sri Lankan Tamils and Tibetans, who have been granted refuge by the Indian government.

"Traditionally, India has always maintained a liberal approach towards the plight of asylum seekers and refugees," says Saud Tahir, project coordinator of Refugee Rights Initiative, a part of Human Rights Law Network. However, there are no laws dealing specifically with refugees. India is not a signatory of the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. "The ad hoc nature of refugee policy in India and the absence of a robust domestic legal framework has led to uncertainty and arbitrariness in the treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees," says Shailesh Rai, senior policy advisor, Amnesty International India.

There is also a big difference in the way refugees from different countries are treated. "Tibet and Sri Lanka are linked to India by peculiar historical connections and circumstances which permit those refugees to enjoy a better position. But those who come from countries like Myanmar, Afghanistan, Iran or Somalia have had to bear serious disadvantages owing to technical and legal issues," writes parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor in his book India Shastra.

Refugees registered with the UNHCR are given a card that protects them from forced deportation or detention. The card also gives them access to education in government schools and free medical care at government hospitals. But as Tharoor writes, "The pressure of India's domestic population on basic amenities such as transport, health, education etc means that refugees must also join the queue and hope to get lucky."

The competition often brings out the worst in locals. "A few days back my daughter had an attack of asthma. At the government hospital, I got pushed back by an Indian lady who had come after me. 'Look at yourself. How can you go before me?' she said," recalls Abida, who puts up with racial slurs every day. Refugees who have fled their country to escape racial, religious or political persecution find Indian attitudes particularly difficult. "Most Indians think all Afghans are Talibans," says Salim (16), an Afghan refugee. Refugee women are also vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse. "My landlord tries to take advantage of me. Men try to molest me. At the guest house in Gurgaon where I work, life is a daily risk. Refugees have to do work that most Indian girls won't. They make us work late nights unlike Indians," says Ching (27) from Myanmar.

Most work in the informal sector or are jobless. This includes those who have worked as teachers or doctors or held government jobs in their home countries. Discrimination is rife. "Till May, I worked at a herbal drug making unit in Delhi and got paid `4000 a month. My Indian colleagues earned Rs 7000," says Naomi (20), a Chin refugee from Myanmar. Education might have brought better opportunities, but the lack of awareness among government agencies means even primary schooling is tough. "When we go to government schools to get refugee children admitted, many principals are reluctant because they are not aware of the laws," says Selin Mathews, a social sector worker. Also, free education in government schools is available only to those below 13. Most refugees also cannot afford a higher education. Noorjahan (18) wants to be a lawyer so she can help fellow Afghan women. "But refugees have to pay at par with foreign students for higher education," says Mathews. Where certificates are lost during the passage to India, or where the Indian education system doesn't recognise their certificates, refugees have to repeat classes. Asad points to a fellow Rohingya, who had studied till first year B.Sc in Myanmar, and had to take admission in class X here. But hope lives on. In her single-room barsati in Delhi's Vikaspuri, Naomi dreams of being resettled in the US. "Some of my family have been resettled there. The government there takes better care of refugees.," she says. Divided by language, culture and circumstances from her Indian neighbours, it is this tenuous dream of the "glorious West" that unites her with the average middle-class Indian. Unfortunately, she lacks the words to share that common longing.

*Names of refugees have been changed


Rohingyas, Andhra (Report by Prasad Nichenametla)

There are over 1,800 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Hyderabad but their uncertified presence and unmonitored activities have become a major security concern for the Hyderabad and Cyberabad police. Faced with persecution at home, Rohingyas have been coming to the city since 2011. But most have entered Hyderabad without a refugee certificate and so are termed as illegal by the authorities. Illiterate or semi-literate and engaged in daily wage labour, the Rohingyas stay in the old city either in camps at Balapur or in rented accommodation in the Chandrayangutta area.

According to the Confederation of Voluntary Associations (COVA), a Charminar-based NGO associated with the UNHCR, 1,806 Mynamarese refugees are registered with them in Hyderabad. Police officials peg the number at 1,725 after a recent physical verification. While 461 of the refugees have a registered UNHCR card, others are still being screened. Some, though, have managed to get India voter ID cards, Aadhaar cards, SIM cards and cell phones. As the process of issuing refugee cards by the UNHCR is a time-consuming one, the Cyberabad police has decided to take the help of COVA to register the Rohingya families with local police stations. Separate registers would be maintained for people in the camps. "This registration is for monitoring purposes only. Their validity as refugees depends on UNHCR certification. We will also probe how some of them got voter IDs, and other Indian documents," said CV Anand, commissioner, Cyberabad police.

Tibetans, Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal (Report by Naresh K Thakur and Amitava Banerjee)

Over half a century ago, in 1959, when thousands of Tibetans crossed over to India after a failed uprising against the Chinese, it was the beginning of a period of uncertainty for them, of struggling for their livelihood, and of attempting to make an alien land their home. After 56 years, today, one lakh odd exiles have their own democratic government whose leadership is elected through the ballot. "India has embraced us like her own people. No other country would have done what India has done for us," says Phuntsok (71), who fled to India in 1971.

A Tibetan refugee family at Mcleodganj.

Much has changed in the lives of Tibetans in India. Sonam Dorjee, Tibetan Settlement Officer at Mcleodganj, says they have proved their mettle in every field. Apart from those in Mcleodganj, Darjeeling in West Bengal is home to some 2,500 refugees. There are others in other parts of the country including in Delhi. With the assistance of the Indian government, the education department of the government-in-exile, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), established 73 schools, which have 24,000 students and 2,200 staff members. The Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy announced in 2014 entitles community members to schemes on par with Indians. They can now avail of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Indira Awaas Yojna, and of subsidies for Tibetan children in schools and universities. Tibetans born in India have also got voting rights following a 2014 Karnataka High Court Order. "However, we still face difficulties while travelling abroad," says Lamsang. A few have also faced forceful deportation to.

Sri Lankans, Tamil Nadu (Report by KV Lakshmana)

We have been treated well and have been looked after well for all these years. And it continues," says an inmate at Gummidipundi refugee camp for Sri Lankan Tamils. She is among the thousands who fled the island nation when Tamils were being persecuted there in the late 1980s and 90s. The 50-year-old has been living at the camp since 1996 when she arrived here with her relatives, and says this is the only home she has known. "We have no major problems here. We have managed to save from the earnings and built small houses inside the camp," she said. "No one ill treats or harasses us, but we lack freedom as we are not citizens of India." Some long to return to the "motherland".

Sri Lankan refugees at a camp in Tamil Nadu. They believe they have been well taken care of by the government here, though the tug for the homeland remains. (Photo: Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)

Among them is a 65-year-old resident who is about to leave for Sri Lanka, to follow her sons and daughters who left earlier. "I can never forget all the help I got and am getting here," she says adding that the younger people at the camp have high aspirations. Unfortunately, their opportunities are limited. She believes that reservations for refugees in fields of higher education like medicine or engineering would have helped. The Gummidipundi camp houses some 920 families (3,190 inmates). The school inside the camp was run by an NGO until 2012, when the state government took over. Each family gets free 20 kg of rice per month and monthly monetary help. "India has been a role model to the world as far as the treatment of Sri Lankan refugees is concerned. It has given more to the refugees than what is available to its own vulnerable people,"said SC Chandrahasan, chief functionary of Organisation of Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OFERR).

Different Strokes

India offered welfare schemes to refugees from ertswhile East Pakistan who came to India between 1948 and 1971. They were subsequently absorbed as Indian citizens. At present antagonism towards Bangladeshis can be traced to their status as economic migrants. In Assam, Bangladeshi infiltrators are lodged in three detention camps. As of August 15, 2015, there were 378 people in these camps.

(With inputs from Digambar Patowary)

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    Poulomi Banerjee is assistant editor at Hindustan Times.A journalist with over a decade’s experience, Poulomi has reported on varied subject, but human rights and gender issues are her preferred areas of work

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