In­dia’s re­stric­tive laws on NGOs hin­der­ing refugees

The Mercury - - NEWS - Jes­sica Field

AT­TEMPTS by the Indian gov­ern­ment to de­port tens of thou­sands of Ro­hingya refugees have thrust the coun­try’s laws into the spot­light.

Lawyers rep­re­sent­ing the Ro­hingyas have re­it­er­ated the con­sti­tu­tional right (of cit­i­zens and non-cit­i­zens alike) to equal­ity, life and per­sonal lib­erty in In­dia. Mean­while, the gov­ern­ment has claimed such refugees may pose a se­cu­rity threat to the state.

Both sides have been mak­ing their case at the Supreme Court.

What ef­fect does this le­gal pre­car­i­ous­ness have on the ground? For one thing, it means the ma­jor­ity of refugees in In­dia head for cities – where there is the pos­si­bil­ity of anonymity and work op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Delhi is of­ten the pre­ferred des­ti­na­tion for refugee groups that fall within the UNHCR’s (UN refugee agency’s) man­date. In the cap­i­tal, these groups have the pos­si­bil­ity to get refugee cer­tifi­cates and ac­cess to cer­tain sup­port ser­vices, such as ed­u­ca­tion, health, liveli­hoods and le­gal coun­selling.

How­ever, these ser­vices are limited in num­ber, reach and bud­get. They can also be cur­tailed at short no­tice. Of­ten, refugees in ur­ban In­dia can only rely on them­selves.

Self-or­gan­ised so­cial safety nets look dif­fer­ent for dif­fer­ent groups. In the early 1990s, nearly 50 000 Sikh and Hindu refugees fled Afghanistan fol­low­ing a spike in ethno-re­li­gious vi­o­lence. In 1992, a group of them in Delhi set up their own or­gan­i­sa­tion – the Khalsa Di­wan Wel­fare So­ci­ety (KDWS) – ded­i­cated to the sup­port of their refugee com­mu­nity. KDWS is funded through mem­ber­ship fees, and helps other Sikh and Hindu Afghan refugees (num­ber­ing around 15 000 in Delhi) strug­gling to re­ceive the as­sis­tance they need from the Indian gov­ern­ment.

It fo­cuses on ed­u­ca­tion and skills de­vel­op­ment, in­clud­ing teach­ing devo­tional mu­sic, lan­guage classes, stitch­ing and com­puter skills. More in­for­mally, it of­fers rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and sup­port for do­mes­tic dis­putes and griev­ances. Be­cause of their per­ceived re­silience and com­mu­nity co­he­sion, they are viewed as a model refugee com­mu­nity.

Refugees from Chin State in Myanmar, too, have their own com­mu­nity sup­port sys­tems. A mi­nor­ity re­li­gious and eth­nic group per­se­cuted by the Burmese mil­i­tary, they have fled to In­dia in waves over the past four decades and are set­tled pri­mar­ily in Mi­zo­ram, Ma­nipur and Delhi. In Delhi they num­ber around 4 000 and are largely clus­tered in the west of the city. The com­mu­nity has a hired floor in an apart­ment block where – with the sup­port of their church and some NGOs – they run lan­guage, com­puter and stitch­ing classes, and also pre­vi­ously, their own clinic with a Chin doc­tor.

As a Chris­tian com­mu­nity, the church is an im­por­tant part of their ur­ban so­cial safety net. The same goes for Chris­tian Afghans, who num­ber a few hun­dred in In­dia’s cap­i­tal and live in the south of the city.

“It’s good,” ex­plained a young Chris­tian Afghan to our re­search team. “Be­cause of the church I have some friends.”


Some of the Ro­hingyas have also self-or­gan­ised. A small num­ber of prom­i­nent youths es­tab­lished a Ro­hingya Lit­er­acy Pro­gramme and women’s em­pow­er­ment ini­tia­tives, as well as ac­tively net­work­ing with the aid com­mu­nity to aug­ment sup­port and ser­vices. Their foot­ball team, the Shin­ing Stars, is an im­por­tant so­cial ini­tia­tive of­fer­ing bridg­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to other groups in Delhi, as they play sol­i­dar­ity matches with other teams in the city.

How­ever, it would be a mis­take to laud these com­mu­nity ini­tia­tives as so­lu­tions to the prob­lem of en­sur­ing ad­e­quate refugee pro­tec­tion in In­dia. Many arise due to se­vere ac­cess gaps in Indian public ser­vices.

It was the dis­crim­i­na­tion they ex­pe­ri­enced in Indian schools and clin­ics that led the Chins to es­tab­lish par­al­lel schools and a health clinic. More­over, not only is sus­tain­abil­ity pre­car­i­ous (the clinic run by a Chin refugee doc­tor had to close when he was re­set­tled), it also re­in­forces seg­re­ga­tion.

The same Chris­tian Afghan refugee who praised the sup­port of his church net­work also spoke about such dif­fi­cul­ties. He said: “It is un­lucky

Young Afghan refugees play dur­ing a sit-in out­side the UN High Com­mis­sion for Refugees in New Delhi in 2007.

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