Skip to main content

Afghan nationals residing in India take part in a demonstration demanding better rights for women in Afghanistan, ahead of the International Day of Peace in New Delhi on Sept. 19, 2021.SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images

The turmoil triggered by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has brought a fresh wave of despair to the Afghan refugees who were already living in India. Their hopes of ever going back to Afghanistan are dashed, and their status in India is precarious.

Their fears prompted hundreds of Afghans, many of them women and children, to rally outside the United Nations refugee agency in Delhi and demand security and justice for their future.

“We have three demands. We want refugee status for all Afghans, and long-term visas. Canada, Australia and the U.S. have announced they will welcome Afghan refugees, so we want UNHCR’s support to resettle there. And for those living in India, we want education, employment opportunities and proper documentation,” said Ahmad Zia Ghani, head of Afghan Solidarity Committee, at the protest.

Even as hundreds of Afghan refugees trickled into India last month after the Taliban takeover, those who had made their escape earlier are struggling against a complex resettlement framework. Many are still not officially recognized as refugees as India is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention. The country also lacks a national refugee protection policy. It grants asylum to refugees from neighbouring countries and defers to the UNHCR to determine the status of arrivals from countries like Afghanistan. The process of getting legal status can take years, leaving many refugees in limbo without legal protection or benefits.

One of those refugees is 27-year-old Shahpoor Zarifi, who left Afghanistan fearing for his life in 2014 because he worked as an interpreter with the U.S. and British armies.

“The unrest in our country has renewed our desperation about our situation in India, where we have to live without any documentation and rights. Why are we not getting refugee cards? Many have been waiting for 10 to 15 years. My case has been rejected by the UNHCR twice,” he said.

Mr. Zarifi is allowed to work at a travel agency serving medical tourists in “Little Kabul,” a busy Afghan-populated enclave in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar area filled with Afghani eateries, grocery stores and other sundry consumer services run by refugees. With flights from Afghanistan suspended, Mr. Zarifi’s business has all but dried up, his earnings severely low. “I have been seeking resettlement in Canada for many years but due to lack of proper documentation, I haven’t got a visa. Out of desperation, I fell for a scam in January that promised me a ticket to Canada in return. Instead, I was kidnapped for ransom and tortured in Goa until I was rescued by the local police,” he said.

According to the UNHCR, Afghans account for around a third of the more than 43,000 individuals registered with the agency in India, totalling 15,559 refugees and asylum seekers. It said in a statement last week that from Aug. 1 until Sept. 11, 736 Afghans were recorded for new registration in India. The UNHCR is “scaling up its capacity to meet the increasing requests for registration and assistance for Afghans in India,” including an Afghanistan emergency cell and a humanitarian response program to provide core relief items and cash-based assistance for new arrivals and those already in the country, the statement added.

Afghan refugees have migrated to India since the 1970s. Human rights experts have noted that India has been less enthusiastic about welcoming them during this latest wave, although last month the foreign ministry stated that it would help Afghan Hindus and Sikhs come to the country.

We used to be the destination of choice for refugees earlier, sending out a message of peace and inclusivity. But we have lost that moral high ground and our international image has taken a battering,” said Anas Tanwir, a Delhi-based Supreme Court lawyer and founder of the Indian Civil Liberties Union.

“We need to look at Afghan refugees as a resource, not a burden. But we have never tried to assimilate them the way we have Sri Lankan Tamils and Tibetans. As a big brother country, we have a duty to offer more shelter to refugees, and it’s our diplomatic chance to have the upper hand.”

For 47-year-old Baldev Singh, an Afghan Sikh who came to India a year ago after he lost his eldest son in a bomb blast in a Kabul gurudwara (place of worship), living here is a stop-gap arrangement for his family of eight. He lives in West Delhi’s Krishna Park, a colony popular with Afghan Sikhs, where he runs a grocery store, his rented house a five minute walk away. In some ways, it feels like home, but the struggles keep mounting.

“We don’t know how the system works here, what our rights and benefits are. We have a long term visa for now and we have received some help from Sikh bodies. We are getting by. We hope we can relocate to another country in a few years,” he said.

Meanwhile, many Afghan refugees are depending on home-grown enterprises – including embroidering for the clothing industry – to survive. An example is Silaiwali, a social enterprise started by Delhi couple Iris Strill and Bishwadeep Moitra in 2018 to provide Afghan women refugees with a sustainable income through an eco-friendly brand. It is supported by the UNHCR’s MADE51 model that connects refugees who have artisanal skills with local partners to promote economic inclusion.

At the Silaiwali studio, a group of Afghan women from the minority Hazara community are busy at work upcycling waste fabric from the fast fashion industry to create handcrafted decorations and dolls for orders from across the world. “It’s a space where they can breathe a little, put on their music, have a community lunch together, and since their homes are walking distance, they can attend to their children too. We have about 15 salaried women refugees and about 70 other Afghan women with whom we work on a per-piece basis. Many of them are the main earners of their families,” Ms. Strill said.

Silaiwali’s manager, Razia Asas, 45, came to India in 2013. She was a teacher but said it was her husband’s job as a journalist that forced them to flee in fear. By day, she stitches beautiful dolls that embody a fusion of Afghan and Indian features. As the women work in the studio, their soft chatter in Dari ripples through the room. They are united by their worries for their children.

“It’s been very hard to provide education for my four children here, especially after the middle school years,” Ms. Asas said. “We can’t afford private schools. My eldest is 23 years old and makes a little money by offering classes to younger kids. They can’t access mainstream jobs. What I wish and hope for, is a secure future for my children.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct