As the 2014 U.S pullout from Afghanistan draws closer, New Delhi needs a plan to deal with a fresh wave of refugees

In the courtyard of a New Delhi hospital, Hanifa, an Afghan refugee, walks around offering her services as an interpreter to her countrymen who are waiting for treatment. She is the sole breadwinner for a family of six. Being an interpreter is her only source of income.

Hanifa’s life in India is starkly different from that back at home where she worked in the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs and was a prominent women's rights activist. In 2010 she received death threats from the Taliban because it considered her to be a supporter of the western forces and thus an infidel. She was forced to flee to India in 2011 and was recognised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a refugee.

Taliban threat

Though survival in India is challenging due to the lack of access to employment and uneven integration in society, the prospect of her returning home is unthinkable given the looming uncertainty of Afghanistan’s fate after the withdrawal of international troops in 2014.

“We hear of attacks happening everyday even in cities like Kabul. The threat of the Taliban has only grown stronger. We are definitely headed for a civil war after the withdrawal,” says Mahmoud Sayeed, another Afghan refugee who fled to New Delhi in 2006 to avoid blasphemy charges after he converted to Christianity. For many Afghans like Sayeed, much like their past, the future too appears to be riddled with conflict and fear.

While India works towards strengthening its strategic partnership with Afghanistan, there has been no clear policy as yet on dealing with increasing numbers of asylum-seekers from the war-torn nation. In anticipation of the worsening security conditions in their country, many Afghans are scrambling to find asylum in a country they can call home. In the South Asian region, India continues to be one such destination, apart from Pakistan and Iran. While Pakistan has been hosting Afghan refugees since the Soviet invasion, it has now set June 2013 as the deadline for the repatriation of around 1.66 million Afghan refugees. Similarly, the Iranian government, hit by a faltering economy, is also pushing for their return.

UNHCR led

An estimated 25,000 Afghans are believed to be living in India — a mix of traders, medical tourists, students and those fleeing threats to life and persecution (i.e. refugees). Asylum-seekers in India typically include people who face threats from the Taliban, interpreters working for the international presence, journalists, single women, including activists and those facing forced marriage threats, former government officials, etc. According to UNHCR estimates, it has recognised close to 10,000 Afghans as refugees.

With Indian consular presence in five districts in Afghanistan, the process of getting an Indian visa has become relatively simple and usually takes two to three days. In the last four months, the number of Afghans seeking asylum is believed to have increased.

India has traditionally allowed and tacitly recognised refugees by allowing the UNHCR to conduct refugee status determination and recognising its “Refugee Card.” Thus, most Afghans view India as the only hope to seek a better life. Living as refugees in cities like New Delhi, is however, daunting. “Many Afghans are coming to India thinking that they can seek asylum here if conditions in Afghanistan deteriorate after 2014. However, once they come to India, they realise that life is very tough as a refugee, especially given that you cannot work here,” says Sayeed. Most refugees work in the informal sector, characterised by a lack of social security, low wages and exploitation. But qualified Afghan refugees — and these are many, including doctors, human rights activists, journalists, etc — who aren’t able to find work that fits their qualifications, find it frustrating. While some accept the situation, others return despite the continued threat to their lives, betting on the remote possibility of a stable Afghanistan post-2014.

Long-term visas

In June 2012, the Indian government agreed to issue long-term visas to refugees recognised by the UNHCR. Significant in the Indian context, this overtly recognises refugees and enables them to work in the formal/private sector, which is a right under international refugee law. Further, in what appears to be an attempt at maintaining and developing its traditionally friendly relations with Afghanistan, the Ministry of External Affairs indicated in the Lok Sabha in February this year that “longer duration stay” applications of Afghan nationals entering India with valid travel documents will be considered. Together, these developments hold promise for Afghan asylum-seekers, though how these policies will be implemented needs to be seen. In light of the imminent possibility of an increased influx of asylum-seekers from Afghanistan after 2014, a clear refugee policy and implementation strategy would be in India’s best interest.

(Sahana Basavapatna and Roshni Shanker are founders of Ara Legal Initiative, a legal aid centre for refugees in New Delhi. All names have been changed to protect the identity of the person. June 20 was World Refugee Day.)

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