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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.


A Kurdish refugee perspective on displacement and integration

And A Poem for YOU on #WorldRefugeeDay2019

By Ayar Ata

The impetus for my research on Kurdish mass displacement and diaspora was developed gradually over the course of my own life experience as a refugee in July 1986, during the Iran-Iraq war as the region became increasingly insecure and dangerous for everyone, especially for refugees and displaced people, I with five other young men took a long walk out of the border region through an area called in Kurdish ‘dyhata sotawakan’ literary (burned villages).

Five month later a new chapter of my life began in November 1986 when Sweden kindly opened a new gate for me to an exhilarating, and yet at an alien society. A new society which was both inviting and challenging me to restart my life. I traveled to London to study with my suitcase.[1] I arrived at Stansted airport in London on 25 June 1989. To cut a long story short, I am still here, a member of the Kurdish diaspora in London and I am a Kurdish Londoner.

Perhaps my own formal and most informative steps towards active integration or active citizenship in London began when I completed my undergraduate degree at SOAS, University of London in 1997. During the course of studying for a BA in Social Anthropology and Development Studies, I learned more about forced migration and immigration – stories as well as theories. This helped to shape my initial academic interest in migration and integration in London. I further completed my postgraduate studies in social policy at Middlesex University in 2000 and forced migration and international human rights studies at University of East London in 2009 prior to starting my PhD study at London South Bank University (LSBU) in February 2011 which I completed in April 2017.

My study on Kurdish diaspora in London at LSBU analyses the notion of history, cultural identity and the idea of home and belonging by considering how the Kurds view their own history (the past) and how they relate (at present) within their new home, that is London. In other words an analytical attempt has been made to understand a shifting position of the Kurds from victims in the region to active citizens in London. Moreover, based on personal narratives and other empirical data collected, my study clearly illustrates that the transformation of identity is occurring within the Kurdish diaspora in London. On a micro level, a new theme has emerged within these narratives, where many second generation Kurds who born in London positively identify themselves as ‘Kurdish Londoners’. The energy, dynamism, and challenges of integration should be understood better for all BAME and refugee communities in London. See a recent proposal which put forward by the British Future, an independent think tank organisation based in London, advocating for starting a Centre at the City Hall for promoting integration and citizenship in London.


[1]  Ata, Ayar (2008). My Suitcase [a poem] In Exile Writers Magazine, issue 9.

My Suitcase

Under my bed there it was my seemingly little suitcase.

Inside it my few precious belonging.

A present from My Grand mum, an evenly shaped

Light blue stone with white spots spread all over it.

A familiar piece of early morning sky with tiny stars twinkling in the palm of my hand.

A photo of my mother smiling at me in despair,

waving and wondering.

A broken watch with frozen hands



IASFM Panel Submission Success: Documentation, Preservation and Researching the History of Forced Migration and Refugee History: Ethical and methodological developments

IASFM Panel Submission Success: Documentation, Preservation and Researching the History of Forced Migration and Refugee History: Ethical and methodological developments

We are very pleased to announce that our panel submission for the IASFM16 conference to be held in Poznan, Poland was accepted and full details of the panel are outlined below.  We would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who submitted an abstract in response to our call and I would also like to say a big thank you to my colleague, Dr. Rumana Hashem, for coordinating the submission.

An initial program for IASFM 2016 is now also available online via the IASFM conference website at: http://iasfm.org/iasfm16/program/

Many thanks and very best regards,

Paul Dudman
(Archivst, University of East London).


Title of the Panel


Documentation, Preservation and Researching the History of Forced Migration and Refugee History: Ethical and methodological developments


Panel Author:  Hashem, R.

Co-authors:  Dudman, P., Khan, A. W., Lauren, B., Sharma, S.


Panel Abstract: 

Documentation, Preservation and Researching the History of Forced Migration and Refugee HistoryThis panel seeks to examine some ethical and methodological considerations for documentation and preservation of refugee voices and history of forced migration. We recognise that there is a need to work on how knowledge in the field of forced migration is created/ produced and maintained. The panel will also address the growing critique of the divide between the knowledge of experts and migrants/ refugees. We would like to link the proposed panel into the conference theme 9, “Researching forced migration: engagements, methodologies and ethics.” This means that we are looking forward to papers which would cover ethical and methodological developments in relation to collating, researching, archiving and documenting testimonies of refugees and migrants for the purposes of constructing and documentation of social and political history of forced migration. It will conclude with a rationale for the creation of the IASFM Working Group for Archiving and Documenting the History of Refugees and Forced Migration.

The papers in this panel will cover the below and more issues as relevant to the conference theme:

  • How do/can we document oral history of refugees and migrants without breaching confidentiality and sensibility of data?
  • How important is engagement with local refugee and migrants communities for documentation of history of forced migration?
  • Which ways could community archives, oral histories and digitalised archives of (refugee and migrants) promote the preservation of history of forced migration?
  • What is the significance of diverse narrative methodology in understanding and researching history of forced migration?
  • What are the best practices for collating and archiving refugee and migrants’ testimonies, and how do we deal with major challenges in doing research in the field of forced migration?
  • What are the high standards of collection care and long-term preservation of `refugee archives’, and how this could be maintained?


In addition to the above, the panellists will address ethical and methodological issues, including who can/should do refugee research, who can be researched, whose voices should be heard and preserved in archives in the field of forced migration and refugee studies, how can we adequately document and preserve history of forced migration and refugees.


Structure of the Panel: 

The panel is divided into three parts:  a) Papers and presentations by four panellists, b) Response by panel author to the presented paper, and c) Open discussion and comments by the forum


Individual abstracts and titles of papers:

Amadu Wurie Khan, The ‘Self’, Ethics & ‘Voice’ in Migration Research: a reflective critique of ‘insider’ ethnography Social science literature has acknowledged the benefits of using researchers with ‘insider’ status to research vulnerable and ‘hidden’ groups in society such as forced migrants. Some of the benefits of ‘insider’ ethnography include building trust, bridging cultural understanding, easy access to diverse voices and its empowerment potential (Bloch 1999; Jacobsen and Landau 2003; Hynes 2003; Kosygina 2005; Dona 2007). However, as an asylum seeker academic, I encountered some unexpected limitations emanating from my ‘insider’ status that are worth sharing with the wider academic/research community. The limitations have implications for methodological considerations relating to ‘insider’ ethnography, research ethics and the ‘ethical representation’ of ‘voice’ and life stories in refugee research. These methodological concerns have been overlooked in the literature.

The paper will therefore reflect on my research experience in two capacities, as an ‘interviewee’ and a ‘researcher’ with a refugee background. It will consider the benefits and challenges derived from being an ‘insider’ in relation to access and recruitment of interviewees, data protection, consent and anonymity, knowledge production and ‘voice’, and ‘positionality’. In addition, it will consider the ways in which researchers could compound the liminal social status, marginalisation and disempowerment of asylum seekers/refugees during the research process. This reflective critique will suggest that, for many forced migrants, participating in research provide a space and mechanism for claims making, resistance and empowerment.
Amadu Wurie Khan, International Commission on Survivor Centered Disaster Recovery

Shailja Sharma, Ethical Issues in Collecting Oral Histories of the 1947 Partition

Though oral histories and their archives are an accepted mode of historical inquiry in academic and non-academic settings, this practice raises questions around survivor’s trauma, confidentiality vs. public memory, and a researcher’s ethical imperative to “do no harm”. Unlike material archives, where artifacts and documents are historical legacies, oral histories often implicate living people. More importantly, in the context of Partition history, events and memories involve a degree of violence and uprooting. While working to collect oral histories for 1947 Archive, an organization based in Berkeley, California, the process of asking subjects to revisit old and private memories is a fraught one. They often get upset, emotional, cry or need to take a break from the recording. Sometimes, they can’t go on. In addition to traumatic memory, there is often a generation or a gender gap between the recorder and the interview subject.  Keeping in mind that the need for oral testimonies is so crucial, particularly as this generation from 1947 is dying out so rapidly, what are the best practices around collecting oral history? My paper will address the pros and cons of this exercise.

Shailja Sharma, DePaul University, Chicago

Paul Dudman. Refugee Voices and Living Narratives: Reflections, Challenges and Opportunities for (Re-) Constructing, Documenting, and Preserving Refugee and Migrant Testimonies within the Archive

How welcoming have traditional Archives been in documenting and preserving the living narratives of those who have needed to flee from their homeland to start a new life abroad and how has this been reflected in our national history and public opinion?  Archives are the backbone of history and how has the legacy of migration been documented within these collections and how can a Working Group for the Preservation of Refugee Archives help to record and document the living narratives of those who experience the migration journey?

The aim of this paper will be to reflect on the work we undertake at the Refugee Archives at UEL to make our collections accessible, especially in light of current migration issues.  It will highlight the importance of civic engagement and outreach project for forming new partnerships between academics, activists, students and community groups.  It will also consider the interaction between oral histories and the more traditional materials located with our Refugee Archive collections, focusing especially on how oral histories can contribute to documenting, preserving and making accessible the genuine voices and testimonies of refugees.

Paul V. Dudman, Archivist for the Refugee Archives at the University of East London.

Brittany Lauren Wheeler . Historical Components of Archival Ethics and Methodologies

This year’s IASFM conference takes place at an institute of ethnography and cultural anthropology. As such, this paper considers the extant archive as a frequent institutional asset with anthropological or other disciplinary legacies. It is the extant archive to which much future archival material will be added; its historical content used both as an argument for new focus, and as the basis for certain material being highlighted for further public or professional access (including digitally). Before we can address questions such as whether a divide between ‘expert’ and ‘migrant’ knowledge persists in the documentation, preservation and research connected to the archive, for instance, we must come to terms with the vestiges of similar and dissimilar historic inequities that informed the creation of archives in their first instance. Such an investigation may provide some assistance in framing the ethical and methodological questions we can ask to help us build better archives concerning forced migration events, refugees, and also post-refugee lives. Ultimately this paper hopes to comment upon the temporality of archives as we consider the representation of lives impacted by forced migration: During what time frame is material “pertinent” to forced migration events and refugee lives, and when might this pertinence end? When is it appropriate for those directly involved as opposed to those not directly involved in migration events to collect, organize, and comment upon archival material? What temporally-informed methodologies might we consider as we continue to build or re-fashion archives?

As an additional note to what has been stated above, the impetus for the abstract is the anthropological museum archive concerning indigenous people. For instance, material on their restricted movements and livelihoods on reservations, often tied to the dispersal of their material culture. While the ultimate focus of this paper is not just museum, this would come into play to some degree in the discussion.

Brittany Lauren Wheeler, Emerging Scholars and Practitioners on Migration Issues (ESPMI).


Welcoming New Members to the IASFM-ADHMR Working Group

We are very pleased to welcome the following new members to our IASFM-ADHFMR Working Group, namely: Amadu Wurie Khan (PhD); Anne Irfan; Brittany Lauren-Wheeler; and Shailja Sharma.

Our Working Group is always looking for new archivists, activists and researchers to get involved in our work and if you are interested, please do email us for further details.  You are welcome to contact the Convenors, Paul Dudman and Rumana Hashem, via email at: p.v.dudman@uel.ac.uk, and r.hashem@uel.ac.uk

Please also consider joining us on Facebook or to follow us at @ADHFM_WG on Twitter; or subscribe to Working Group Discussion List: ADHFM@Jiscmail.com

New Member Details

Amadu Wurie Khan (PhD):

Amadu Khan is a career human rights activist, journalist and refugee academic living in the UK. His research portfolios, which include a PhD study, are in forced migration, citizenship and the news media. He is interested in forced migrants’ personal ‘lived’ experiences and stories of belonging, identity and integration, and how these are shaped by government policies and news media coverage. His human rights journalism include serving as the first ever editor of the Exiled Journalists’ News – UK and have contributed expert opinion on asylum-seeking migration, human rights and cultural diversity to various media outlets including BBC Newsnight, Cork FM96, the African Courier, the Scotsman and the Sunday Herald. He has also held research, editorial and capacity-building/training consultancies with international NGO’s including Amnesty International, Article 19, the then World Development Movement, and with the UK Department for International Development (DFID). He is a founding member of the International Commission on Survivor Centered Disaster Recovery (ICSCDR), where his special focus is on ‘survivor’ ethnography in forced migration.

Email: pawurie@gmail.com

Anne Irfan

Anne Irfan is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, where she is researching the historical development of the Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East. As a historian by training she is particularly interested in questions around archiving and documenting refugees’ experiences. Anne has a Dual MA/MSc from Columbia University and the LSE, as well as a BA(Hons) from Oxford University. Outside of academia, she has worked in the NGO sector, including on projects in the Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Lebanon.

Brittany Lauren-Wheeler

Brittany Wheeler is a student of museology and migration, most recently working within The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where she served as the Repatriation Specialist (2011-2016).  In work concerning the repatriation of human remains and objects, the documentation of the history of forced migration and its long-terms material results is of great importance to the determination of appropriate contemporary action. Brittany has also co-coordinated the Emerging Scholars and Practitioners on Migration Issues Network (ESPMI), where the key objective has been to bring scholars and practitioners into meaningful dialogue, most notably by leading the production of a new multi-disciplinary, open-access, peer-reviewed e-journal, Refugee Review. Brittany holds an M.A. in Forced Migration Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand (within the African Centre for Migration & Society), where she brought the threads of migration and museology together by asking how the processes involved in the repatriation of human remains over borders impact the lives of the living (those culturally affiliated with the deceased through ancestry and/or geography in South Africa and the United States). She will begin a PhD study in autumn 2016.

Email: Brittany.lauren.wheeler@gmail.com

Shailja Sharma

Shailja Sharma is an Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at DePaul University, Chicago. She directs the M.S. in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies and is an Associate Professor of International Studies. Her books include New Cosmpolitanisms: South Asians in the United States (Stanford, 2006) and Postcolonial Minorities in Britain and France (forthcoming, Manchester University Press). Her areas of research include migration, integration, and citizenship, as well as South Asian history.

Email: ssharma@depaul.edu