India hosts sizeable refugee populations in both rural and urban areas, although the country is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. In recent years, the population of concern to UNHCR in India’s capital city has grown more diverse, and UNHCR has sought to apply its new Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas.

In late 2011, refugees and asylum seekers in Delhi numbered around 22,000, including some 11,000 Afghans, 10,000 Myanmarese, and around 1,000 Somalis and others. Afghans seeking protection have been allowed to enter India over several decades, and, once recognized as refugees by UNHCR, they have been permitted to remain. Many come from urban backgrounds and are relatively well settled, especially the Sikhs and Hindus among them. The Myanmarese, who are mainly ethnic Chin from a rural background, face a wider range of problems—from poverty to discrimination to gender-based violence. Somali refugees encounter additional marginalization and face the greatest difficulties.

While India has no national legislative framework pertaining to refugees, asylum seekers and refugees are in principle protected under Article 21 of India’s Constitution, which upholds the right to life and applies equally to citizens and non-nationals. Refugees and asylum seekers are allowed access to public services, and many are able to find work in the informal sector.

However, without specific legal measures, the overall situation of asylum seekers and refugees in urban areas remains precarious, and they may be affected by acts of racism and xenophobia. Delhi’s Afghan and Myanmarese refugees are able to apply for residence permits, issued at the government’s discretion, for periods of a year or two; but Somalis and other refugee groups are not entitled to apply for them. More broadly, the situation of refugees in Delhi contrasts with that of much larger numbers of Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees who receive direct protection and assistance from the government in rural areas.

UNHCR’s involvement with refugees in Delhi dates back to 1981, when the agency re-established its presence in India after a five-year absence, and responded to an influx of refugees following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. At that time, UNHCR mainly provided Afghan refugees in the city with a monthly subsistence allowance. Ten years later, the UNHCR programme in Delhi assisted some 26,000 Afghans and 80 per cent of the programme’s budget was spent on subsistence allowances.

The situation changed in 1993, after UNHCR conducted a survey of the Afghan refugees in Delhi to identify those who were—or could become—self-sufficient, and to identify the most vulnerable Afghans for whom continued support was essential. Most long-stayers who were assessed to be self-reliant had their subsidies terminated, a decision that was not received without tensions.

In 1995, India joined UNHCR’s Executive Committee, and in recent years UNHCR has strengthened its cooperation with India, as an important global partner. UNHCR and India have held high-level bilateral consultations since 2008, and the High Commissioner made official visits in 2006 and 2009.

In the absence of national laws on refugee status in India, UNHCR continues to take on the responsibility for determining whether asylum seekers in Delhi qualify for protection as refugees under UNHCR’s mandate. The agency has invested in strengthening the efficiency and quality of its registration, identification, and determination systems. The government respects UNHCR’s decisions, and recognizes the documents it issues to refugees and asylum seekers.

In line with its new urban refugee policy, UNHCR also promotes access for refugees to mainstream public services provided by the government. Despite their entitlement, refugees and asylum seekers in Delhi often find it difficult to use services such as health care and education, without special guidance and language support. UNHCR and its partners encourage primary and secondary schools to accept refugees and asylum seekers, and provide ‘bridge lessons’ and tuition support. Similarly, UNHCR has worked with partners to provide counselling and translation services, in order to enable refugees and asylum seekers to use public health facilities. UNHCR has also established refugee centres in various local communities in Delhi, so that refugees have support services—such as childcare, training, and counselling—in areas where they live.

At the same time, UNHCR advocates on behalf of the refugees with government authorities and civil society organizations. The agency’s efforts to raise awareness among the city’s police, for example, encouraged refugees to turn to law enforcement authorities to intervene with unscrupulous landlords or when faced with other problems.

Given the protracted nature of the conflicts in the refugees’ countries of origin, prospects for voluntary repatriation remain limited, and resettlement is only available for very small numbers. UNHCR has therefore invested in promoting refugee self-reliance, working with partner organizations to support employment programmes, including vocational training and job placement, as well as innovative ‘production centres’ where refugees make clothes and other items for sale.

Self-reliance remains difficult for the refugees who have to vie for jobs in the informal sector along with hundreds of thousands of Indian migrants who move from the countryside to the capital city every year. Refugees tend to earn very low wages that do not cover their basic needs, including the city’s high rent and transport costs. Similarly, retail items produced by refugees have to compete on Delhi’s high-quality low-price market, and refugee entrepreneurs have no official access to credit. Qualified professionals, mainly Somalis and Afghans, have even fewer prospects, since they are not allowed to work in the formal sector.

In Delhi, as elsewhere, implementation of UNHCR’s new policy on protection and assistance for refugees living in urban areas remains a work-in-progress. Offering a formal legal status and work permits for urban refugees would constitute a valuable step forward.