Saturday, June 20, 2009 16:25 IST Email
New Delhi: You may have heard about the Tibetan community in Delhi, but did you know that the national capital also hosts refugees from war-ravaged Iraq as well as from faraway African countries like Somalia and Sudan? India has a refugee population of about two lakh. Among them are one lakh Tibetans and 73,000 Sri Lankan Tamils, who are under direct protection of the government.
There are also 11,750 other refugees, including Afghans, Myanmarese, Somalis and people of other nationalities under the protection of UN High Commissioner of Refugees-India, most of them living in Delhi — huddled together in small accommodations in nondescript corners of the city.
June 20 is celebrated every year as World Refugee Day to focus on those who were forced to flee their country due to war, persecution or fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion or other reasons. This year’s theme is ‘real people real needs’ — to reflect the reality that despite efforts by governments and aid agencies, many needs of refugees are still to be met, UNHCR-India officials said.
The most pressing need for some is to return to their homeland — as 14-year-old Somali girl Hamdi says. The class VI student, enjoying cultural programmes by refugee children at a function here to mark the day, talked about her longing for home. “We left Somalia last year as there was fighting. It was not safe. Its not that I don’t like it here. But I really want to go back.”
For Myanmarese refugee R Fanai, surviving in an alien country was tough, but the option of going back is not open. “I can return when democracy returns to my country, which does not seem to be happening anytime soon,” says the 32-year-old who fled military-ruled Myanmar and came here in 2004.Financial condition is a major worry for refugees, he says. “We don’t get work permits, so most people are employed in low-paying jobs in the informal sector. Due to financial problems we often share houses with complete strangers.”
For education, UNHCR supports learning centres for refugee children while some also study in government schools. Shivani, a 22-year-old Afghan refugee who came here as a kid, teaches Myanmarese children in a centre in Vikas Puri. “I teach them Hindi, a language I picked up here,” she says.
For Afghan refugees, most of them Hindus and Sikhs who fled the Mujahideen or Taliban regime, assimilation to the society is easier and many have secured Indian citizenship. But for those like Khaled, a Palestinian refugee from Iraq, the only hope is resettlement in a third country. “I lived in south Baghdad and fled when religious militias
started raiding our homes. I cannot go back to Iraq. India is a peaceful country, but I cannot stay here for ever.”
Despite hosting thousands of refugees, India does not have a specific legislation to deal with matters related to them and such a law will be a good step, say UNHCR officials. “A refugee law will legislate our traditional hospitality,” says Nayana Bose, Associate External Relations Officer in UNHCR, New Delhi.