It’s been a year since the Indian Government announced the long-term visa facility for refugees, but many like Zaw Zaw’s family, hailing from Myanmar, are yet to benefit.
Three metal trunks and a few peeling leather bags are all it takes to hold together Zaw Zaw’s 25 years. A hand-spun, bright, red and yellow peacock flag, discoloured sheets of papers and a few mementos from friends are all squeezed in with the memories of the homeland, Myanmar.
“This is all I have got. I look at them once in a while. Today, I was trying to sort out what is 25 years of my life,” he says, pointing to the boxes that his young son uses as hurdles to practice his jumping.
In the congested West Delhi neighbourhood where Zaw Zaw and his family have attempted to make cramped rooms their home, his wife Langmai spins yarn to make ends meet. Money is short and the family does not make enough to live comfortably, yet, they are unwilling to give up on their aspiration for a better future for them and their children.
The family has been in Delhi for the past 10 years doing odd jobs and depending on help from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to survive. No long-term visa means limited work opportunities for the couple.
“We want a long-term visa and have been waiting to hear from the FRRO (Foreigner Regional Registration Office). It will not only make things easier for us in India, but will also help with our resettlement to another country,” says Langmai.
Suipum, who came to India from Myanmar’s Chin State, has not been able to renew his visa and in the absence of an official document and cannot find employment.
He has rented a rickshaw, which he paddles in a limited area around West Delhi; with his clients being mostly Myanmarese.
It’s been a year since the Indian Government announced the long-term visa facility for refugees, but many like Zaw Zaw’s family are yet to benefit. There are procedural delays in granting these visas and not all nationalities have been able to secure the permission.
“The Government of India has committed to allow all UNHCR-registered refugees in India to apply for long-term visas, which will also allow them to work in the formal sector and enrol in any academic institution. The process is slow and it is not clear how long it will take for all refugees registered with UNHCR to obtain them. So far, according to our information, refugees from Myanmar and some Somali refugees have obtained them. Refugees from other nationalities have also applied but have not received them yet,” says a UNHCR official.
There are about 24,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in India, of which 10,000 are Afghans, 11,000 from Myanmar and 900 from Somalia. There are others too, from Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Refugees without a long-term visa have to apply for a renewal every six months. There are also fines that have to be coughed up for expired visas or for staying without permission and fees for renewal. The long-term visa was expected to change all that.
“Each time I had to go for a renewal, apart from the UNHCR certification, I needed documents endorsing my status from the landlord. Since it was being done every six months, it became difficult. I have recently acquired the year-long visa and it has certainly helped,” says Bawiram Sang, who works as an interpreter at a Don Bosco Centre, UNHCR’s partner NGO.
But Vandad Olad Azimi from Iran has not been so lucky. In Delhi since 2010, he has been struggling to seek financial support and aid from the UNHCR. “My visa has expired and I have been running around for help. There are about 10-12 of us from Iran in Delhi without any help from any organisation. On Wednesday, we again had a meeting with the UNHCR officials but we were told that there are limitations and we cannot be registered as refugees. They told us that we will not be deported; but the way we live here, almost held hostage, it might be better to just send us back,” he says.
A small group of Iranian refugees have been demonstrating outside the UNHCR office for the past two weeks.
“Many of them have been receiving medical and financial assistance from the UNHCR for some time. UNHCR is engaged in discussions with them to explore how best to support them within its limited means. Most of the refugees registered with UNHCR in India would like to be resettled in a third country. Resettlement options for refugees in India are very limited and only a minority of the refugees are resettled every year,” the UNHCR official says.
India is not a signatory to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and has not promulgated national refugee legislation UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who was in India earlier this year, told The Hindu in an exclusive interview that India, which has opened its doors for refugees and asylum-seekers, has set an example for other countries to emulate.
And while government officials work through labyrinths of procedures to arrive at a refugee-friendly policy and adults struggle to fit in, there is a generation that has quietly made India home. Zaw Zaw’s eight-year-old daughter Lin Let, who was born here and practices the violin in a corner in between lessons, now speaks Hindi.
“Main violinist banoon gi”(I’ll become a violinist) she grins and just like that the sombre mood in the room changes.