Afghan Refugees in India in the Time of Coronavirus

Afghan refugee
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The lockdown in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic has put all of us at risk in terms of financial, mental and physical health. However, the vulnerable groups including informal wage workers, farmers and refugees bear the brunt of the crisis.

As Delhi enters the 3rd phase of lockdown, living a hand to mouth life most of the Afghan refugees residing in the national capital struggles to meet their ends. As per UNHCR (2014), there are around 14,000 Afghan refugees living in India, which for most is a transit country to reach their final destination. They are mainly residing in various parts of Delhi-Lajpat Nagar, Tilak Nagar, Jangpura, Malviya Nagar, and Wazirabad. Some of them are living in Faridabad, Haryana as well. 

The legal status of Afghan refugees in India

Though India hosts a large number of refugees, it is not a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention or its 1967 additional protocol which gives the former a universal coverage. The 1951 refugee convention is the centerpiece of international refugee protection today. The convention lays basic minimum standards for the treatment of refugees. As per the convention, the refugees are given various rights including the right to primary education, access to courts, provision for documentation, including a refugee travel document in passport form.

India’s policy regarding granting refugee status is not uniform. For instance, the Indian government does offer prima facie official recognition for two refugee groups- Sri Lankan Tamils and Tibetans. It entitles these groups to receive a range of benefits including referral to public services and government-approved refugee certificate. Afghan refugees living in India aren’t officially recognized by the Government of India (GoI) as refugees. However, GoI permits United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to work for the protection of the interest of Afghan refugees in Delhi. Refugees from Myanmar, Somalia, and Palestine are neither recognized by the government of India nor receive much support from UNHCR.  

The Afghan refugees living in Delhi do not have a clear legal status except the refugee card which is issued by UNHCR after following a due process. While the UNHCR issued ID cards help prevent arbitrary arrest and deportation, the refugees still face problems in securing jobs in the formal sector and access to admissions in schools and colleges for the lack of documents. Opening a bank account and renting a home as well requires obtaining a long-term visa.

UNHCR has also been supporting the refugee groups as it provides monthly subsistence allowance to a few of them and also runs various programs including vocational training and self-employment opportunities. While the Afghans find Delhi a much safer place, they complain about the high cost of living as they struggle to meet their ends. Most of them have long waited for their interviews and visas to get the chance to go to the third country of destination but it has not happened. After waiting for 8 or 9 years or more some haven’t got any response, therefore, they have thought of returning to their country but it has not been easy as they have to pay huge fines to the government of India and their name will be put in the blacklist to not be able to come back.

The impact of COVID-19 on the refugees

While Afghan refugees in India have been able to blend well with the locals adding new flavors and aromas to local food and culture, their chances of securing decent livelihoods in formal sector remain limited as they do not have a clear identity. These refugees have been able to start their restaurants, mobile shops, medical shops, parlors, etc. but with the outbreak of Covid-19 and the subsequent nationwide lockdown, their already limited livelihood opportunities are in danger. 

We conducted telephonic interviews with 10 Afghan refugees living in different parts of Delhi to understand the immediate impact of the lockdown on their livelihood and the role played by government and UNHCR to support them during the crisis in terms of providing income support and access to health facilities. 

Take the case of Ahmad (name changed) who came to India from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan in December 2016 due to security threats.  He is living with his brother in Lajpat Nagar and has been able to find a temporary job as a translator and has also been helping newly coming refugee families in finding accommodation. He has also been receiving financial support from his relatives abroad. However, after the lockdown, he has lost his job as well as faced difficulty in receiving the financial support as the financial help was mainly sent via informal means.

Another refugee Mahmood (name changed) who came to Delhi 3 years ago with 5 other members of his family told the authors that he has been able to earn around Rs. 7000 per month by selling fruits and vegetables. After the lockdown, the family struggles to meet their ends in the absence of any alternate income support.

Salim (name changed) who has been living in Tilak Nagar, Delhi since 2015 with 8 other family members shares similar pains as amidst the lockdown he had to close down his shop. Selling second-hand household appliances, he was able to earn around 9000 per month. 

However, food and livelihood is not the only problem for refugees. The Refugee families have expressed concern that those who haven’t yet received the refugee card (the refugee card issued by UNHCR) do not have access to public health services while they cannot afford private health care. Due to language barriers, the refugees also face problems in communication at the hospitals. There are 99 Covid-19 hotspots in Delhi. The hotspots include areas in places like Malviya Nagar, East of Kailash, and Khirki village where Afghan refugees have been living. One positive case of the coronavirus has been reported from Lajpat Nagar as well. Amidst the Covid-19 outbreak, UNHCR in a joint initiative with BOSCO has been providing health and safety guidelines to some of the Afghan refugees regarding protection against the coronavirus. However, many families do not have access to such programs run by BOSCO-UNHCR.

The refugee families reported that they are facing problems in the payment of rent, buying food, access to hospitals, and sanitary items and there has been no financial support from UNHCR or Indian government to help them in managing during the crisis.

Sapna Goel and Reza Ehsan are PhD Scholars in Economics Department at South Asian University, New Delhi.