Refugees in India share daily struggles with UNHCR chief

News Stories, 21 December 2012

© UNHCR/ N.Bose
High Commissioner António Guterres admiring traditional weaving done by women from Myanmar at a refugee centre in New Delhi.

NEW DELHI, India, December 21 (UNHCR) Urban refugees in the Indian capital told UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres of their daily challenges during a two-day visit in which he discussed concrete steps for strengthening UNHCR's partnership with the government.

Guterres visited a refugee centre in New Delhi on Thursday and met eight exiles from Afghanistan, Myanmar and Somalia. They told him about the financial difficulties they face, and the challenge finding places to stay.

"We live on railway station platforms and in open fields. We have nothing to eat. The world is watching our plight, but no one is doing anything," claimed 44-year-old Fazal, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar. India has kept its borders open to the Rohingya and allowed them to stay and work.

High Commissioner Guterres spoke warmly about India's generosity towards all refugees. On Wednesday, he met External Affairs Minister Salman Khursheed and Home Affairs Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde for talks on boosting refugee protection and strengthening ties between UNHCR and India.

"It is a special time in relations between UNHCR and the government," he said. The government has discussed possible timelines to address issues like the issuance of long-stay visas and work permits to refugees and the naturalization of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Afghanistan.

Although India has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and does not have a national refugee law, the human rights of refugees and asylum-seekers are protected by the constitution. They have access to health care and their children can go to school.

However, they say that they face challenges as refugees on a day-to-day basis, such as discrimination, finding accommodation and employment. Women, especially in New Delhi, don't feel safe, even in their homes.

Wilo, a single mother with eight children, claimed that Somali women face discrimination all the time. The High Commissioner later said he was distressed to hear about some of the problems the refugees faced. "We must work together with governments to increase [and improve] safety for women [and all other refugees]."

There are about 22,000 refugees and asylum-seekers under UNHCR's mandate in India, and many more Sri Lankans and Tibetans directly assisted by the government of India.

"God has given responsibility to some human beings to take care of other human beings." Fazal from Myanmar told the High Commissioner. "Your institution is one of them. We are grateful that you have come from so far to listen to us. Please help us."

By Nayana Bose in New Delhi, India




UNHCR country pages

UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award 2015

Aqeela Asifi, an Afghan refugee living in Pakistan, has been named the 2015 winner of UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award. Asifi has dedicated her adult life to educating refugee girls. Despite minimal resources and significant cultural challenges, hundreds of girls have now passed through her school, equipped with life-long skills and brighter hopes for their futures.

Asifi fled from Kabul in 1992 with her young family. They found refuge in the desolate Kot Chandana refugee village in the south-eastern Punjab province of Pakistan. Adjusting from life in a capital city and working as a teacher, to living in a dusty refugee village was difficult. She was especially struck by the total absence of schools for girls.

It took time but eventually Asifi was allowed to start a small school under a tent. Over the years the school expanded and received the hard-won backing of community elders. Asifi's dedication has helped guide more than 1,000 girls through to the eighth grade and encouraged more schools to open in the village. Another 1,500 young people (900 girls, 650 boys) are enrolled in six schools throughout the refugee village today.

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Then a green boat surfaced on TV, packed with emaciated men, crying women and sick children, all dehydrated, hungry and desperate. It gave a face to the problem, then vanished overnight. After five days drifting between the coasts of Thailand and Malaysia, some 400 people on board were finally rescued by Indonesian fishermen in the early hours of May 20.

They are among more than 3,000 lucky ones who have been able to come ashore since May 10 in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, where UNHCR is helping to assess their needs. Thousands more could still be stranded at sea. In a welcome statement on May 20, the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to bring these vulnerable people to shore - a move that will hopefully end the long nightmare at sea.

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Many of the town's temporary inhabitants are fleeing persecution or conflict in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. And although these people are entitled to seek asylum in France, the country's lack of accommodation, administrative hurdles and language barrier, compel many to travel on to England where many already have family waiting.

With the arrival of winter, the crisis in Calais intensifies. To help address the problem, French authorities have opened a day centre as well as housing facilities for women and children. UNHCR is concerned with respect to the situation of male migrants who will remain without shelter solutions. Photographer Julien Pebrel recently went to Calais to document their lives in dire sites such as the Vandamme squat and next to the Tioxide factory.

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