“Our career is at stake, our future is bleak and our life has become miserable. We can’t study or work, and are being treated like dogs”, says Iqbal a teenage Afghan refugee, who along with his parents had come down to India in 2014. Another teenager, Sara wants to resettle in Canada or America and take up a medical profession. She along with her family is living in India from 2007. She got her school education from a Delhi Government school and is well conversant in English and Hindi. "We do not want to go back to Afghanistan, because Taliban do not want us to study and they will kill us."
Around 500 Afghan refugees are protesting outside the UNHCR office in New Delhi demanding refugee rights in India. The refugees say that despite spending more than 10 years in India they have no right to work in the country. They are seeking refugee cards to apply for LTV (Long term Visa) in India, supporting letter from UNHCR for resettlement option to move to another country and security from the Indian Government and UNHCR. Most of them are Muslims and preferred staying back in a peace-loving secular India. The local Muslims have not come out in open for their support owing to the fear of Taliban.
The June 2021 factsheet of the UNHCR states that 2,08,065 refugees reside in India. Of this, 95,829 are from Sri Lanka and 73,404 from Tibet. Recent developments in Afghanistan, following the takeover of the war-torn country by the Taliban, have led to a grave humanitarian crisis. This has serious implications for India. True to its ancient maxim of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family), India’s soil has historically been a home away from home for persecuted minorities. But India does not have a singular policy for dealing with refugees and crises of this nature.
Ahmad Zhia Ghani, head of Afghanistan Community in India, says that most of the Afghan refugees do not have documents and are struggling for job, education, food and security. He himself is a para-medical doctor of Ortho with Apollo Hospital, who was engaged with knee fixing and replacements, but has lost his job. His younger son was kidnapped by the Taliban while they were in Afghanistan. He was released only after a huge ransom was paid. Unfortunately, later his son died because of a kidney failure.
Over the years, Afghan refugees have been persecuted for reasons of ethnicity, religion, nationality, armed conflict and different political views. Many have left their country to get freedom, procure higher education, owing to job prospects and lead a peaceful life. They have been waiting for resettlement for the past several years. Afghan refugees have been facing limitations in access to education, employment, health facilities, mobility and the process of transferring to a recipient country (resettlement) which is indefinite. This condition raises psychological problems like anxiety, hopelessness, and depression.
A large number of desperate Afghan citizens are coming to India (via Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan) after the withdrawal of American troops and rise of the Taliban. India is committed to evacuating Hindus and Sikhs who want to come to India. The Ministry of External Affairs said India will issue emergency e-visas to Afghan nationals who want to come to the country in view of the prevailing crisis in their country. All Afghans, irrespective of their religion, can apply for the 'e-Emergency X-Misc Visa' online and the applications will be processed in New Delhi. The visas would initially be valid for six months.
These refugees are worried about their relatives back in Afghanistan in light of Taliban’s takeover of the country. India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention that defines laws for refugees and their rights in the country of refuge. Thus, Afghans or any group not recognised by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) would not be able to enjoy the rights given in countries like the UK or the US. The UNHCR grants refugee status to foreign nationals from strife-torn nations and issues identification cards. Those who are recognised as refugees by UNHCR are issued an identity card, but these are not widely recognised by authorities. The UNHCR also has a resettlement programme which involves providing permanent residence in another country.
According to Kiri Atri, Media in-charge at UNHCR, 15,467 Afghan refugees and asylum seekers are registered with UNHCR India (As of July 2021). Resettlement process, in which UNHCR works with governments which have set specific criteria for a very limited number of persons with heightened vulnerabilities and quota for admissions, depends on a series of interviews, checks and clearances by the concerned countries. Depending on the resettlement country, the full process may take several years. Less than 1% of refugees are currently resettled globally, due to the limited number of places. For this reason, only the most vulnerable refugees who face protection risks in the country of asylum are able to be prioritized for resettlement.
UNHCR has accordingly been advocating with States to increase the number of resettlement places available, as well as to provide and upscale complementary pathways such as labour mobility schemes, educational scholarships and family reunification programmes. At a time when the number of refugees globally is higher than ever, more needs to be done to provide solutions for those who are forcibly displaced. “We are also upscaling our support to Afghan refugees and asylum-seekers, through registration and documentation for assistance, prioritizing the most vulnerable individuals. The programme for registered vulnerable individuals includes food, cash assistance, education, and psychosocial assistance”, he added.
The families of Afghan peace envoy Abdullah Abdullah and former President Hamid Karzai are also reportedly living in India. Karzai himself had spent years of his student life in India.
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has resulted in a human catastrophe as it has triggered a mass exodus of Afghan people who are desperate to flee the clutches of the Taliban. But where will they go? Russia and Austria have made it clear that they don't want Afghan refugees for various reasons. Some countries are accepting Afghan refugees while some are weighing their options and are not too keen to expand their refugee programmes.
The United States will accept people from Afghanistan who have previously worked with the government. The United Kingdom said it can take up to 20,000 Afghans over a long term with priority given to women, children and those facing persecution. Australia has plans to provide at least 3,000 visas. Tajikistan said it was ready to take in up to one lakh Afghan refugees. Around 20,000 Afghan refugees have already fled to Canada. Reports said Iran has set up emergency tents for refugees in three provinces that border Afghanistan. Pakistan said it would seal its border with Afghanistan but so far Afghans have been allowed to cross over to Pakistan.
One Bridge Academy has been providing education to many Afghan refugees in Lajpat Nagar in the form of tuitions and holistic development. Hundreds of such Afghan refugees, who are well to do, have engaged their wards with such Institutes to learn the basics of English, Mathematics and Hindi. Like several other organisations, Sushil Tyagi of Nicodemus ministry has come forward to help such Afghan refugees on a regular basis on humanitarian grounds. The Church, Gurudwara, Mandirs, Mosques and other charitable institutes should open up their ‘bhandaras’ or ‘langars’ for these refugees.
Nazari, an escort and medical translator for several Afghans visiting India for their medical treatment and higher education, is holding his nerves after the recent terror attacks. In the present scenario, he is losing out on the customers and finding it difficult to make two square meals for his family of five children, wife, sister and his mother.
Amir, who received Biblical literature from an American soldier turned to Christianity and is surviving with his leather products making ability in Delhi. He says, “Over 200 underground churches are functioning in Kabul alone. Many who have accepted Christianity are now living in abeyance for the fear of Taliban. Many within the family have accepted Christianity but do not disclose the whereabouts even to their peer groups. There are instances where a father has killed their own children on knowing that they have accepted Christianity”.
Experts like Stephen King, who worked with these refugees, feel that the Government should act promptly and come up with a refugee law that supports the people of Afghanistan and promotes India’s reputation as a champion of human rights. A policy that addresses Indian concerns and, at the same time, offers respite to refugees is the need of the hour.
The people of Afghanistan have historically enjoyed a good relationship with India. Thousands of Afghan students are enrolled in over 45 universities across the country. At a time of crisis, they must be treated with dignity. They shouldn’t have to wait at the mercy of an ad hoc policy that discriminates on the basis of religion. Only time will tell whether the Taliban Govt will be recognized world over, but humanity needs to be displayed in all circumstances.