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Lives in Limbo: A conversation about the precarious lives of refugees in India

By Salma Gul  and Nithya Rajan


This is a conversation between Salma and Nithya. Salma is an Afghan activist and artisan who is a refugee in Delhi, India, and Nithya is a core team member in ADHFMR and an Indian origin Ph.D. researcher at the University of Minnesota, US. Nithya is currently conducting field research in Delhi for her dissertation project on the material life and labor experiences of Afghan refugee women in India. Nithya and Salma worked together on a livelihood initiative for Afghan refugee women over the past year, where Salma was the lead artisan. This is a snippet from hours of conversations between them that span a range of topics, but often revolves around the problems faced by refugees, especially women refugees in India.


Sunset from the terrace of a refugee neighborhood in Delhi. Courtesy: Nityha Rajan.


The time and space of this conversation are significant. In recent years India has reversed a long tradition non-refoulement, despite not being a signatory to the Refugee Convention of 1951. Delhi, where this conversation is taking place is not a city that one associates with refugees, but it is home to at least 60,000 refugees.[1] From Salma’s top-floor apartment in a migrant neighborhood, we can see the majestic white dome of Humayun’s tomb, a 16th-century monument. Thousands of refugees were housed in the expansive gardens of this monument after The Partition of India in 1947, one of the biggest mass displacement of peoples to date. Refugees in Delhi live in a city deeply shaped by The Partition, often in neighborhoods that were created to house partition refugees around 70 years ago.


For World Refugee Day 2019, we decided to talk about the issues that haunt us in this global climate that is so hostile to migration and refugees.


Nithya: Salma, how long have you been a refugee?


Salma: I came to India in 2013; So it has been almost 6 years now. I had to flee Kabul because of the threats I received as a women’s rights activist. When I first arrived in India, I did not even realize that I was now a refugee- someone who had fled their country because of the fear of persecution. Two Afghan women who had also come with me to India told me that I have to apply for refugee status at UNHCR. This was news to me. I had not come to India with the intention of becoming a refugee, I left because I had no other option.


Nithya: My move to the US happened under very different circumstances, but I think there are some moments that all migrants experience irrespective of the conditions of their migration. When I went through the immigration checkpoint in the US for the first time, it hit me that I was now an immigrant. Coming back to you, it is important for people to realize that refugees are people who are forced to flee circumstances beyond their control. No one sets out to become a refugee; many do not realize that they are refugees until they reach a host country and have to apply for asylum in order to access the most basic amenities.


We have had many conversations about the problems that refugees face in India such as lack of documentation, jobs, access to health and education. Which of these are foremost in your mind today?


Salma: Refugees cannot travel anywhere from India and this is something that I personally feel constrained by. I am not talking about resettlement, but the opportunity to travel and explore the world. I have been offered opportunities to attend conferences abroad as an activist, but could not take them up because I have no travel documents. I realize that I might never be able to go to Afghanistan again, but I wish I had a travel document that would allow me to travel to other places. Even though we cannot get citizenship in India, we should be eligible for some other government-issued documentation that will give us the freedom to travel and move around.


Nithya: What you are saying makes me realize that while we think of refugees as victims of displacement and forced migration, we do not empathize with the forced immobility that refugees endure post-displacement in places like India. In India, refugees are forced to remain in Delhi because the UNHCR office is located here even though high rents, shortage of jobs and extreme weather make survival in this city difficult. This inability to leave shapes the lives of refugees who are in urban cities as well as refugee camps. In India, even domestic travel requires some form of state-issued document that many refugees often do not have.


Salma: If I have to live in India forever, given the current laws and the attitude towards refugees, I will be forced to live in Delhi. I would not even be able to move to another city in India. In that sense, it is like being in jail.


Nithya: Not having identity documents, especially Aadhaar Card (a unique identity number issued to residents of Indian and is now required for most financial transactions) affects refugee in other ways as well. Refugees cannot open bank accounts which are now mandatory for jobs in the formal sector. Further, in the absence of any refugee laws or comprehensive refugee policy, it is not clear whether refugees have the right to work in India.

What has it been like trying to make a living as a single refugee woman in India?


Salma: I am someone who cannot keep still and needs to work all the time. I have worked long hours since I was 10 years old when I started working in a carpet-weaving workshop to contribute to my family finances. So for me, not being able to work is the biggest punishment. Although I was not able to complete my higher education, I have much experience in women’s rights organizing as well as tailoring and designing clothes and traditional Afghan embroidery. Yet, I have not had even one steady job since I came to India. I have made ends meet and supported other Afghan refugee women through my embroidery work, but it is not a dependable source of income. I have taken up every opportunity available to improve my circumstances- training and classes offered by UNHCR partner NGOs, English-language courses, livelihood programs, and apprenticeships, but none of them have led to jobs or a steady source of income. And this is not just my story, it is the case of most refugees in India. If you are a single woman without family support or male relatives who have access to more informal jobs, then your situation is very dire. The work options available for women are often limited to cooking, embroidery, and tailoring. It is difficult to imagine a future in India if I cannot work here and this is why most refugees feel like they are in limbo.


Nithya: The context in which refugees have to labor in India is so complicated. It is shaped by a pastiche of laws, visa rules, bureaucratic red-tapism, high unemployment rates and the non-recognition of refugees’ educational qualifications and work experience. The alarming fact is that while there has been some unprecedented anti-refugee action by the state in the past few years, the condition of refugees in India has mostly remained the same for many decades. In a recent speech, Member of Parliament Mr. Shashi Tharoor pointed out that India is the only democracy of any worth that does not have a national asylum law.[2]

Any kind of substantive change to the condition of refugees in India, including the right to work will have to come through such legislative changes. While the UNHCR runs initiatives through its partner NGOs to make education, health, the legal system and livelihood more accessible to refugees, recognition by and support of the Indian state is crucial for improving the lives of refugees.


Pieces of traditional Afghan embroidery brought back from Afghanistan. Courtesy: Salma Gul

End Notes

[1] Bhupinder Singh Chimni. “The legal condition of refugees in India.” J. Refugee Stud. 7 (1994): 378.

[2] Shashi Tharoor. Keynote Address. “The Emerging Narrative of Forced Migration in South Asia conference.” Migration and Asylum Project. India International Center. 10 January 2019.


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