It is 2 pm on an unusually rainy Tuesday afternoon in southeast Delhi’s Bhogal, which houses a sizable number of ethnic Afghans who have fled to India from war-torn Afghanistan in batches every few years since the 1990s. The Masjid lane is dotted with Afghani confectioneries, restaurants, and pharmacies, alongside apartment blocks three or four storeys high.
Zahra Tabassum, 20, lives on the third floor of one of these buildings, sharing a small flat with her mother, grandmother, and four siblings. Tabassum’s family came to India in 2015 when her father was taken by the Taliban. Hers is one of the thousands of Afghan families seeking refuge and building a new life in India.
The UNHCR categorises refugees and asylum seekers who need protection, shelter, health, and education as persons of concern. There are 43,157 persons that are “of concern” to the UN refugee agency in India out of which 15,559 refugees and asylum seekers are from Afghanistan.
After the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul on August 15 , hundreds of ethnic Afghans in India protested outside the UNHCR office for 13 days, demanding issuance of refugee cards, reopening of closed cases, financial support for vulnerable families, and possible resettlement to another country. They also appealed to the Indian government to formulate a refugee law.
Tabassum participated in this protest. “All my siblings and my mother, we all were there day and night,” she said. “It even rained so much but we went there for our rights, UNHCR gave our community leader Ahmad Zia Ghani an assurance, but nothing has happened yet.”
Becoming a registered refugee
Hamsa Vijayaraghavan, a former UNHCR lawyer and the chief operating officer of the Migration and Asylum Project, an organisation that provides legal aid to refugees and asylum seekers, told Newslaundry that India does not have a codified law for refugees. India is not a signatory to the 1951 and 1967 conventions for refugees, implying that it doesn’t have a proper system on how to deal with refugees.
There’s also “differential treatment” when it comes to refugees from various countries, Vijayaraghavan explained, which means the situation of an Afghan refugee in India is very different from that of a Burmese, Tibetan, or Sri Lankan refugee. The government grants refugee status on a case-to-case basis.
For asylum seekers from non-neighbouring countries, or countries that don’t share a border with India, the UNHCR determines whether or not the person can obtain a refugee card.
When an asylum seeker lands in India, they have to register themselves with the UNHCR, upon which they get a blue-coloured document which says their status as a refugee is under consideration and they are asylum seekers. This document is called an under consideration certificate, colloquially known as the blue paper.
Tabassum said the blue paper is practically of little to no value to them: it neither gets them a house on rent nor a functional sim card or bank account. “When we would show it to the authorities or anyone, they would often ask, ‘what is this thing, show your Aadhaar card,’” she said.
The blue paper is followed by a refugee status determination interview, a quasi-judicial process where asylum seekers present their case and justify why they should be made a refugee in India.
“The interview is a quasi-judicial process, it’s a judge passing a judgement,” Vijayaraghavan explained. “In this you have to prove that you are at risk of persecution, which is a very high standard in law. So, if you don’t meet that standard, legally speaking, the UNHCR is not bound to recognise you as a refugee. I would say that things do get missed out. Often refugees are unable to present the elements of their case that would help them get recognised and one has to realise that when they come here they’re quite traumatised. They may also be prone to being misinformed by others in the community; for instance, someone may tell them, say this and not that, it will help your case and so on.”
Vijayaraghavan explained that this interview often takes place six months or even a year after the blue paper is issued. On the basis of the interview, those asylum seekers who are accepted are issued a refugee card, but the determination of their status could even take a year or more. Those who get rejected at this stage have the right to appeal for reconsideration but once their case has been closed at the appeal stage, reapplication is not a right.
After the case is closed, they cannot possess the blue paper as well, meaning they are no longer “persons of concern” to the UN refugee agency. India doesn’t have a strict deportation rule so while some asylum seekers leave, others often lay low, slipping through the cracks in the system.
Another legal professional working in the field explained, on the condition of anonymity, that documents issued by the UNHCR, like the refugee card or blue paper, do not have wide recognition in India.
“Whether they are acceptable or not often depends on the government’s will and ultimately UNHCR is in India on the government’s mercy,” he said. Except for some recognition among authorities in pockets of Delhi where the Afghan refugees live, they’re not really valuable documents, he added.
Flight and rehabilitation
Tabassum’s journey to India began in late 2014.
The family lived in Kabul at the time, where her father, Abdul Karim, worked with a NATO-led military mission called the International Security Assistance Force. A jewellery designer by profession, Karim would frequently travel across Afghanistan while working for the force
Tabassum claimed her father was forced by the Taliban to help them “infiltrate” the mission. When he refused, she said, he was abducted and taken to Pakistan. Although he managed to make his way to Turkey, his family back home was at the receiving end of threats, Tabassum said, to reveal his location.
So, the family sold their home and belongings and fled to India by securing a tourist visa. It took them a year to obtain refugee cards. In the meantime, a member of Delhi’s Afghan community helped them get a house on rent. The family survived on their meagre savings and the Rs 18,000 which Tabassum’s father managed to send every six months.
Tabassum’s family has refugee cards issued by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Delhi. But seven years after they came to Delhi, the family has no stable income and Tabassum’s younger siblings have no prospect of education.
Tabassum and her sister Miriam enrolled in a school funded by the former Afghan government in Bhogal, while her brothers Yusuf, Zikiria and Mustaf joined a local government school.
But enrolling in college was a problem, Tabassum said, given the higher fees for non-Indians and language issues.
“I wanted to get into fashion designing,” Tabassum said. “I have the talent for that. My friends would tell me, ‘Indian education is the best, Afghan students especially go to India for an education.’ But I feel so helpless that even though fate has landed me here, I can’t access an Indian education.”
Her sister Mariam, now 19, wants to be a lawyer, but faces the same issues. Her brother Zikira, 14, told Newslaundry he wants to be a pilot. He’s fond of sketching, he added, saying, “I am self-taught, I just hold the pencil and my hand does the work.”
Artwork by Zikira, 14.
Vijayaraghavan said higher education is inaccessible for many Afghan refugees. Some students do manage to get admission in government colleges based on a long-term visa, if the family manages to get one, and a couple of private colleges give admission to such students. But these are expensive options. The UNHCR’s partner organisation in India, Bosco, deals with education for refugees, but even that provides bridge classes only at the school level.
The family’s problems were compounded three months ago, when they received a phone call from her father’s friend. Her father had died of Covid, the friend said, though the family received no other details of what had happened.
Even as she spoke to Newslaundry, Tabassum received a phone call from their landlord. The family paid Rs 15,000 as rent until her father’s death, after which they moved to a small flat with a rent of Rs 9,000. But that’s a struggle too.
“We haven’t paid the rent in two months. The landlord told me he’d rather keep the house vacant than let us live for free,” she said, adding that the landlord had given her time till that evening to pay part of the rent.
Tabassum’s mother Aafiza said she now feels defeated. “I am here looking at their talent,” she said, referring to her children, “but time is passing and I fear I will not be able to do anything.” She’s made rounds of the Afghan embassy in Delhi, asking for help to secure her children’s futures, but to no avail.
“At last I told them to send me back,” Aafiza said. “I am dying every day now, at least there I’ll die once and for all.”
Long waits and lost hope
While Tabassum’s family managed to get recognised as refugees by UNHCR, not everyone gets to this stage. One of them is Swaiba Esmati, 33.
Swaiba came to India from Afghanistan’s Karte Naw in 2015 with her three children, parents, and two brothers. Her husband – “an influential man with connections to Talib leaders” – had been abusive and controlling, she said, and she came to India to escape her marriage. Swaiba had been married off at the age of 13 and she wanted to give her family a better future.
“If even one of us would have stayed there,” she said, “my husband would have killed them or made his way here to find me.”
The family secured blue papers from the UNHCR but were rejected after their refugee status determination interview in 2015. Swaiba reapplied for refugee status but her case was closed in 2017. Since then, the family has continued to live in Delhi without documentation.
Vijayaraghavan explained that when it comes to women Afghan refugees, the bulk of the UNHCR’s caseload is of domestic violence. Typically, she explained, gender-based violence is not something you get refugee status for in any country, because you have to establish that you have gone through the courts in your country before seeking international protection. But in Afghan cases, there is an argument that they don’t have a judicial system in their country which is fair to women, so going to their courts would not be of much use.
Swaiba’s son, aged 14, attended a private school in Yamuna Vihar when they came to India, with the help of documents provided by an Indian family they knew. But in 2017, when her landlord found out about the closure of their UNHCR case, they were asked to move out. The family shifted to a small room in Wazirabad, where a neighbour provided tuitions for Swaiba’s children.
Four months ago, however, Swaiba’s father, Mohammad Farooq, 70, died of Covid-related complications. Her brothers moved out and Swaiba, her children, and her mother moved again to cheaper accommodation. They now share a flat in Bhogal with another Afghan family.
Swaiba said her father had written over 60 letters to the UNHCR for the reopening of their cases and died hoping that one day, his daughter would get an identity in India. She attended the protest outside UNHCR and still writes mails every week.
Vijayaraghavan said it’s a “fair demand” for Afghan refugees to ask for the reopening of their cases for the “simple reason that they cannot return to Afghanistan because there is a war going on there.”
“So, even by UNHCR’s own laws,” she said, “it is a good case to reopen it.”