HUMAN RIGHTS FEATURES
A joint initiative of SAHRDC and HRDC
-6/6 Safdarjung Enclave Extension, New Delhi -110 029, India.
Embargoed for 26 July 1999
Approximately 60,000 Afghan refugees are estimated to be living in New Delhi, but since the beginning of 1999, the Indian Government’s Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) has refused to renew their residence visas. As a result, the residence visas of most of these refugees have expired and they are now living in the country illegally, a predicament that every Afghan refugee in India will share by the end of the year. This situation has had predictable consequences. For example, most of these refugees are now wary about traveling outside their own neighbourhoods for fear of extortion, or, even worse, deportation, at the hands of the Indian police. The situation for Afghan refugees is rapidly deteriorating.
The Indian Government’s new policy of non-renewal is in significant part the product of tensions between India and Pakistan, which reached a fever pitch during the recent Kargil crisis. Newspaper reports warn of the “Talibanisation” of South Asia and frequently blame Afghans for street crime in New Delhi (See, e.g., Times of India, Look Behind Kargil to Taliban and Bin Laden, 9 July 1999; Hindustan Times, Real and Potential Foes, 5 July 1999). These messages have contributed to a popular stereotype of Afghans as fanatics and criminals, which in turn has supported the victimization of Afghans by both private individuals and the state.
These difficulties are the latest chapter in the troubled lives of Afghan refugees. They have fled to Delhi over the past twenty years mostly to escape the fighting which has consumed Afghanistan since the USSR invaded their country. The Afghans are a diverse and divided group, generally victims of different sides of different wars. Their inability to organise effectively is partially a holdover from previous political and religious differences. Such vulnerabilities have compelled the Afghans to rely on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to serve as both their representative and advocate in dealing with the Indian Government. Unfortunately, UNHCR has not lived up to this task.
The UNCHR has weak knees when dealing with the Government of India. Despite its seat on the Executive Committee of UNHCR, India has not signed the 1951 Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The government has also demonstrated its lack of commitment to international law by refusing to recognise the Afghans as refugees and by denying them the right to work or own property. UNHCR is allowed to operate within New Delhi only at the special invitation of the Indian Government. UNHCR, unfortunately, has been excessively mindful of its precarious position in India and has thus failed to act as a strong advocate for the refugees.
UNHCR provides some refugees with a number of services, including: emergency aid, vocational training, legal advice, resettlement assistance, job placement assistance and money for education, medical care and basic necessities. By the early 1990s, the contraction of available funds and the seemingly intractable nature of the Afghan conflict precluded the option of refugee repatriation for the foreseeable future. UNHCR then began to move from a strategy of supporting the refugees through monthly subsistence allowances to one of establishing the refugees as financially self-sufficient members of their communities.
This new strategy had two parts. First, UNHCR terminated the subsistence allowances of most of the Afghan refugees. Second, UNHCR then offered those refugees a “lump sum” grant (equal to approximately one year’s allowance), supposedly for the purpose of starting their own businesses.
This strategy, however, has proven to be largely unsuccessful for three reasons. First, this strategy is based on the false premise, as articulated on UNHCR’s website, that “many of the Afghans actually had substantial resources of their own and had found some kind of gainful employment” (http://www.unhcr.ch). Second, the policy itself has not been implemented in accordance with UNHCR’s stated directives, namely, to ensure continued assistance to the more vulnerable members of the Afghan refugee community. Third, the strategy ignores the reality that Afghan refugees cannot legally work in India and that the few available jobs, either within the community or without, do not pay a living wage. We address each of these problems in turn.
1. UNHCR currently cites a 1994 survey of refugees claiming that most of New Delhi’s Afghans have found “gainful employment.” SAHRDC’s findings dispute this claim. First, UNHCR’s assessment of the employment situation is highly questionable. Rajamma Rajkumar, for example, is an Afghan Hindu refugee whose husband once worked for two days as a pushcart ice cream vendor. When Mrs Rajkumar asked UNHCR why the family’s subsistence allowance had been cut off, she was shocked by the UNHCR official’s response, namely, that in their view her husband was operating an ice cream factory! Second, most of the Afghan refugees interviewed by SAHRDC do not have “gainful employment.” Of those refugees that do have a job, the best employment most could find is selling watches and calculators in bazaars earning Rs.2,000 to 3,000 per month. Any job is also made difficult by the fact that employment for Afghan refugees is illegal and that extortion and harassment by the police is an ever-present threat.
2. UNHCR’s website also claims that after its 1994 survey, it “shifted the focus of its
urban refugee programme in New Delhi, providing a subsistence allowance only to those with a particular need for it, such as some female heads of household, the disabled, the elderly and newly arrived exiles.” UNHCR has since slashed subsistence allowance rolls to fewer than 2,000 families. Unfortunately, those with a particular need often do not get the assistance they require. Without much effort, SAHRDC found several people “with a particular need” who do not receive a subsistence allowance. Farishta Durrani, for example, a single mother, receives no subsistence allowance for herself or her four daughters. Mohammed Nurbhai, who is over seventy years old, is supported only by his grandson’s Rs.1,000 to Rs.1,500 wages per month, despite repeated appeals to UNHCR for subsistence allowance.
3. In SAHRDC interviews, nearly every refugee whose subsistence allowance had been terminated reported feeling compelled to take the “lump sum” grant. These grants are ostensibly intended for refugees to start their own businesses, despite the inability of Afghan refugees to acquire work visas in India. Additionally, UNHCR’s own pamphlet for refugees states that “[i]t is important to have a well thought out plan before applying for a lump sum grant.” Many Afghans claim, however, that they only accepted the grants because they had been cut off from subsistence allowance and they were given the stark choice of a “lump sum” or nothing at all. Few have received any advice from UNHCR on how to use the money, and many find the start-up costs for a business far exceeds UNHCR’s lump sum grant. For example, Ahmad Dostum, was advised to purchase an auto rickshaw (a motorised rickshaw), the cost of which is twice the sum of the grant given to his family by UNHCR.
Among the dozens of Afghan families interviewed by SAHRDC, no refugee has been able to actually transform his or her lump sum into a self-sufficient business in even the informal labour market. Despite this fact, UNHCR’s website asserts: “By mid-1997, only 2,500 people out of a total caseload of some 20,000 urban refugees were still dependent on a monthly subsistence allowance, many of them because they had medical problems.” This statement is technically correct: many of the refugees have been removed from the rolls of subsistence allowance. It obscures the fact, however, that their removal was involuntary and that many of them—now that they are no longer “dependent” on subsistence allowance—find themselves in financial straits with no hope of future financial assistance from UNHCR.
The Indian Government’s new visa policy is the most recent problem facing the refugees. This latest development has demonstrated UNHCR’s inability to protect the Afghans. On 3 June 1999, several Afghan refugee community leaders attended a meeting at the UNHCR mission in New Delhi. UNHCR informed the Afghans of the Indian Government’s new visa policy. The UNHCR’s local representatives reportedly promised that either they would resolve the visa problem in two weeks or, if their efforts were unsuccessful, they would ask UNHCR’s Geneva headquarters to pressure the Indian Government. The refugees have yet to hear anything substantive from UNHCR. They continue to live illegally in India. Any efforts that UNHCR may have made on behalf of the refugees have achieved few, if any, results.
Note: All the names of Afghan refugees in this report are pseudonyms used to safeguard their security