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Somali refugees feel marooned in Chennai

Meera Srinivasan
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Kassim Dhuhulow —Photo: R. Ragu
Kassim Dhuhulow —Photo: R. Ragu

With a past troubled by conflict and a future marked by uncertainty, life, for a group of Somali refugees in Chennai, is far from peaceful.

Somalia is usually in the news here for the wrong reasons — in 2012, pirates from Somalia hijacked a chemical tanker with 17 Indian sailors — but these Somali nationals, living over 2,000 miles away from their families, lovingly call Chennai their home. “ Rombo nandri, rombo nandri ,” said Kassim Isse Dhuhulow, who has picked up some basic Tamil.

He maintains a blog on the lives of Somali refugees in India, and devotes much of his time to refugees from his country. “I work for a small firm here, but my full-time activity is to voice the problems of Somali refugees,” he said. He came to Chennai in 2003 and has been here since. Exhorting his friends to speak, he said: “Only if you speak about your problem can we seek a solution.”

Now looking fairly assured, they began speaking, on condition of anonymity. “There is no sense of security. I don’t have any particular problem in Chennai, but I am worried about finding a job, and living a peaceful life,” said a youngster, who lives in a rented home in Koyambedu. He gets by with some money that his family sends him from time to time, he added.

A student of an arts and science college in the southern suburbs, he does not plan to return home anytime soon. “My family is there, but the situation is very unsafe.” Many like him pin their hopes on jobs in India. But despite being qualified, language barriers prevent them from finding good opportunities.

Two decades of conflict

Following the civil war in Somalia that began in the 1990s, hundreds are said to have migrated to India. There are about 740 Somali nationals registered as refugees in India, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – New Delhi. As per their records, less than 20 live in Chennai, and a majority, in Hyderabad, New Delhi, Pune and Bangalore.

The ongoing conflict prevents many nationals, like the student, from considering returning home. However, life in India, they said, is not free of anxiety, either. “From finding a job to getting a SIM card, everything is a problem. Without local help, it is really hard,” said another youngster, who is about to finish his B. Sc Computer Science.

While a couple of them said they were employed with private firms, one is training at a private hospital to become a nurse. Others are students in various colleges, mostly in the city’s suburbs.

In addition to issuing refugee cards, the UNHCR and its partners assist refugees in accessing public education and health services as well as legal assistance if needed, according to Hans Friedrich Schodder, Deputy Chief of Mission, UNHCR.

However, Somali nationals maintain they hardly receive any help or guidance. “ Some Somali nationals have even been deported,” said Mr. Kassim Dhuhulow. Attempts to reach the local and New Delhi offices of the UNHCR proved futile, he said.

On whether the UNHCR received any complaint from the Somali community in India, Mr. Schodder said the confidentiality rules of the agency prevented him from sharing details regarding that. He however said the Indian government would not deport anyone holding a valid UNHCR refugee card.

Charging UNHCR with corruption, Mr. Kassim Dhuhulow said financial assistance did not reach Somali refugees and sought the intervention by State and central governments. “We have lost faith in the UNHCR,” he said. Responding, Mr. Schodder said the UNHCR’s partners earlier provided financial assistance only in certain specific cases where the refugees were “vulnerable” or “ill”. “It was for basic life support and went only to a select few who needed it. Over the years, this assistance has come down,” he said.

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