Demonetisation Has Made Being a Refugee Harder

Refugees with no legal documents are unable to exchange old currency, except at discounted rates with local traders.

A woman who belongs to the Rohingya community from Myanmar washes clothes as children play in a camp in New Delhi. Credit: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

A woman who belongs to the Rohingya community from Myanmar washes clothes as children play in a camp in New Delhi. Credit: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

New Delhi: When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the surprise demonetisation of the Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes on November 8, it kicked off a frenzy across the country and people soon began to line up outside banks to exchange old notes and withdraw money in legal tender.

But Fatima Bano, 63, only heard of the decision and understood what it meant three days later when she took out two Rs 500 notes from her savings of Rs 5,000 hidden under her cot. The money was meant to buy the medicine she needs to take weekly for her heart condition.

A Rohingya refugee living in India without any legal status, Bano had no way to exchange her money at the bank. Scared that her husband’s hard earned savings would have no value after the demonetisation and the immediate need for her medicines pushed Bano to exchange the entire amount for Rs 4,000 in lower denominations at a local shop.

Bano lives with her husband in one of the shanties at Khadar in New Delhi, home to 200 refugee families from Myanmar. India has provided shelter to refugees fleeing persecution and war over the decades, but it isn’t necessarily a great host. According to UN High Commission for Refugees data, 35,000 refugees and asylum seeker are living in the country, a majority of them Afghans and Rohingyas. But they live here without any legal status or government issued id card and do not have access to banks. The only thing keeping them from being deported is a UNHCR issued card. The Centre’s decision to scrap the higher denomination notes has opened up another pit of problems for the refugee community in India.

Shahnawaz, 30, arrived in Delhi from Kabul in 2011 after facing threats from the Taliban in his village. He has been living with his daughter and wife in the city’s Bogal area for the past five years. Back in Afghanistan, Shahnawaz was a teacher and continues to teach children from the Afghan community in Bogal.

Over the past few months he had saved Rs 50,000 to pay as an advance and rent for a bigger flat. Since he has no bank account, Shahnawaz kept this money at home in Rs 1000 notes. Now he is unsure of what to do. Friends and relatives have advised him to exchange the money at Nizamuddin even though he will not get the entire amount.

“There are some problems but what can we do. We can’t protest against it and all we can do is wait and hope there is a way out without losing out on some of our savings,” says Shahnawaz.

The situation is the same for 44-year-old Mohammed Akim, who runs a grocery shop at Bhogal. He had arrived from Kandahar with his family of eight in 2010. But the money he had earned from the shop is mostly in big notes.

“In the next few days, I have to pay rent and school fees for my children. The Afghan community here relies heavily on cash. Only people who have long-term visas have access to banks but the majority lives as asylum seekers,” he says. “We are hopeful that the Modi government will come up with a plan for us as well,” he adds.

For the stateless Rohingya refugees who began arriving in the country in large numbers post the 2011 ethnic violence in Myanmar, the sudden demonetisation has been a shock. Even though they practically live hand to mouth, whatever small savings they have is needed for their daily survival.

Fleeing religious persecution in her hometown Moungdow in Myanmar, Bano had arrived in India in 2011 with her husband Mohammed Ibrahim. The couple has been living in a rented shanty at Khadar ever since. They work as construction workers in Noida, as do the majority of others living in Khadar.

“We had saved this money for medicine and paying the rent during times when we can’t go out for work regularly. We went to the shop to get medicine but they refused to take our money. Then we had no option but to replace it,” she said.

Bano usually earns Rs 300 per day. The loss of Rs 1000 to get rid of demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes means she will have to go back to sooner then she wanted to, even though she is sick.

Like Bano, other Rohingyas who had small savings in big currency notes usually kept for paying rent and electricity bills had to part way with it at a discount. Some who had initially held back from making such a deal are losing even more now.

“Now they are giving just Rs 700 for a Rs 1000 rupee note,” says Mohammed Saleem, 35, who lives next to Bano.

But that’s not the only problem that demonetisation has brought for them. Since demonetisation, for many Rohingyas work has stopped coming as some of the construction projects in the area have reportedly been halted. Some of the Rohingya men living at Shaheen Bagh who still managed to get work as construction workers complained that they were being paid in Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes even after demonetisation was announced.

“Yesterday I was paid in Rs 500 notes even after we refused to take them. We can’t protest much, but at the same time we unable to use these notes. When we go buy groceries from shops they either refuse to take the money or sell it to us at higher prices.”

Adnan Bhat is an independent journalist who travels between Kashmir and Delhi.