New Delhi: Despite the staggering COVID-19 tally in India so far – 5.28 lakh cases, including 2,03,051 active cases and 16,095 deaths as of June 28 – vulnerable sections of society are on the streets, providing essential services for other people while trying to save themselves from starvation in a deeply diseased economy.
Among these people are many from the Afghan refugee community, people who have been fleeing to India and other nations since conflict began in their country with the Soviet invasion of 1979, which led to the rise of the Taliban and the fall of the Najibullah government in the 1990s.
UNHCR figures reveal that India, as of 2019, hosted 41,000 refugees and asylum seekers from countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Tibet, Sri Lanka and Somalia. Already bereft of their homes in Afghanistan, the Afghan refugees in India were hit hard by the three-month-long nationwide lockdown that hoped to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Even as India begins to unlock, they are in a kind of limbo, neither able to begin earning again due to job losses and travel restrictions, nor able to provide for themselves until they can earn again.
Living on loans
Khalid Mominzadah is working multiple jobs to survive this period of his life. A journalist in Afghanistan, he came to New Delhi from Kabul in 2009 after repeated threats to his life from the Taliban. He applied for asylum at the UNHCR and received his refugee card in six months. After settling down in Delhi as a refugee, he set up an NGO named Salaam Cultural Forum and a music band involving Afghan youth called Yuva.
“Afghans in Delhi mainly earn daily wages with whatever work they can find,” says Mominzadah. “Since international flights were banned, those of us who worked as interpreters for people flying in from Afghanistan and Tajikistan for medical purposes have been penniless.”
Even those who work as waiters or chefs at small eateries and bakeries are out of work due to the pandemic. The financial support many refugees receive from relatives living elsewhere also stopped during the four consecutive lockdowns.
“An Afghan refugee woman with four children was starved for three whole days till a fellow refugee reached out to her,” Mominzadah says. “She was desperate and could not even reach out to the community as she did not have the money to recharge her phone.”
According to Mominzadah, landlords have been harassing their refugee tenants for rent, even though the Central government has ruled that tenants must be given one month’s relaxation from rent. Most refugees have been coerced to pay their rents, he claims, adding that refugees are always charged more than the amounts Indian citizens pay in the same neighbourhoods.
Zubair Farghand once directed a film that graphically showcased the brutalities Afghan refugees had to live with in Iran. The film, Neighbours, is based on the real life experiences of Afghan refugees in the Safaid Sang detention camp in Iran, where Iranian guards murdered more than 630 prisoners in 1998 for protesting against mistreatment. The refugees were killed and buried and a road was constructed over their graves. Threatened by the Afghan government, the Taliban and the Iranian government, Farghand fled to India five years ago.
“My home runs on little loans from fellow Afghans here,” says Farghand. “I borrow from one friend to return a loan to another friend, then borrow again to return that loan and the cycle continues. Two of my daughters earn, but the lockdown emptied all our jars. One daughter was laid off, but one recently returned to the clinic where she had worked before the lockdown.”
Unfed and forgotten
The Afghan refugee community in India would have been in better shape if India had been a signatory to the refugee conventions, says Farghand. Had India signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, a national refugee protection framework would have had to be in place. This would have enabled the protection of refugees and preserved for them the right to asylum and the principle of non-refoulement, which guards the refugees from being pushed back to the states they fled from.
As it is, Nabeela, who was a receptionist at an office in Malviya Nagar before the lockdown, has nothing in her wallet but a few visiting cards. After losing her husband in a suicide attack in Afghanistan, she moved to India and had her wages as a receptionist supplemented by financial assistance from her parents in Afghanistan. But Afghanistan’s economy has also been a victim of the pandemic. Nabeela’s parents can no longer send her money at this time.
Standing at a street corner, Hamed Hamidzadah offers his services as an odd-jobs man for any amount, however small. His family has been seeking refuge in several countries since 1992. With a degree in gastronomy from Germany, Hamidzadah used to have a restaurant at Kabul’s international airport. When he fled to India because of the violence in his homeland, he worked as a chef at a restaurant in Aerocity, Gurgaon, and also as a Pashto and Tajiki interpreter for medical tourists. Now he has just Rs 500 left and a family of four to feed. “Allah is our only hope,” he says.
According to a refugee who prefers to stay anonymous, while the government tries to provide rations to the financially weak communities of Delhi, the refugees seem to have been forgotten. And even though the UNHCR has a ration distribution scheme of its own, many refugees have yet to receive anything from the organisation.
Without work, the already vulnerable Afghan refugees are likely to be beset with more problems. Not only does India not have a policy to cater to refugees, but the Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2019 will not allow the Muslims among the community to be naturalised. Thus, even after a decade or more in India, the Muslim Afghan refugees in the country will spend the rest of their lives struggling to survive.