As a student who has been trying to understand ground realities in India and state responses to it, visiting a refugee camp at Shaheen Bagh added a lot of meaning. Bringing in an understanding of how it is time we crack the nuts to scrutinise the state of refugees in our vicinities, pitch demands to the state and ask about their involvement in providing asylum to our refugee communities.
“Two family members were missing. We didn’t know where to find them. We went to the police to lodge an FIR, faced an identity crisis. They said they wouldn’t help us because we were refugees,” says Usman ji, the community leader.”
The above extract is a narrative by a Rohingya Muslim who migrated away from the violence in Myanmar around 2010, assuming that the new settlement would provide relief. He lives in Shaheen Bagh with 50 other families.
Shaheen Bagh is a neighbourhood in South Delhi, hosting fancy hotels, markets, and demarcating dry acreages of land for 63 Rohingya families to set up tin houses down the lane. The route till the camp is heavily cloaked with big construction sites, making it vulnerable to identification.
The camp is occupied on a private land. The refugees have to pay a monthly rent payment of ₹700 per family to live there. The camp is filthy and consequently, affects the health of the people living in it. The male members of the family (as women are mostly engaged in household chores) earn their living through rag-picking and selling their labour to nearby construction sites (where minimum wage is not guaranteed). As financial instability looms large, the nostalgia of their distant home renders them emotionally wounded, pregnant with problems of securing their means of subsistence.
These families don’t feel optimistic about change because the present generation has no access to education. The children in these families cannot be admitted to schools due to lack of identification. Moreover, both psychological and physical undernourishment are common in the children. The excessive lead content in water, only two-course meals a day, lack of medical facilities and awareness, contributes to their poor health status. This further obstructs the very hope of building better human resources within the community, the reality of which would be under-reflected in the Human Development Index.
Meanwhile, it becomes the most difficult for women. They lose their identities to this masculine space because of the dogma penetrated in the community, which disallows women outside the purview of four walls once they hit puberty. Women hesitate to communicate about menstruation, passing down the social stigma to the present generation adolescent girls, who also suffer from the lack of knowledge, and fail to avail sanitary facilities.
Sanitation and hygiene are considered secondary elements which are justified even when their means of sustenance are doubtful. Therefore, while a male adolescent’s health is fragile, girls suffer an added disadvantage of turning anaemic due to societal taboos.
“UNHCR refugee office se jo identification card milne the, woh abhi tak nahi milein hain humko, hamare pass na to aadhar card hai, na koi bank account, aur shayad itni taakat nahi ki Hindustani government se kuch aasha rakh sakhe,” (The refugee cards which we were supposed to get from the UNHCR office haven’t come yet. Neither do we have an aadhar card, bank account and perhaps not enough strength to have some hopes from the Indian government) says Usman ji, the community leader.
Refugees in the camp complain frequently about discrimination, along with policemen treating them as slaves, which is demeaning and renders them prone to emotional breakdowns. No provisions have been made to get United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cards issued for them, which if received, could averse a lot of complications.
On my visit to the camp, I saw kids humming rhymes along with a mentor in a tiny hut. An organisation called Youth For Peace International has been facilitating groundwork advocacy and Rohingya Refugee Rehabilitation Project under its project name ‘Sangharsha’ (meaning struggle). The team has been working to develop physical, psychological and financial stability through workshops, awareness camps, therapies, and youth mentoring. Weekly classes are scheduled for kids aged between 4 to 12, where volunteers engage kids in learning through lessons and games. They are also partnering with an international research group that would advocate policies at the higher level, possibly in the UN.
The very theory of cosmopolitanism is challenged when the State fails to address their issues. These people in the camp have not received their identification cards from the UNHCR, and sadly, there aren’t many to advocate for their distress. The involvement of the State in this context looks absolutely dissolved. There is no central body that deals with the refugees and no law has been enacted by the government for these refugees. While it is easy to put up words aligned in an article, the depth of the situation cannot be so plainly defined.
The efficacy to being a human and its essence proliferates with the right to accessing basic amenities, civic virtues and living a dignified life. But where will refugees be contextualised in India, especially when it has no uniform code or law enacted for refugees, which frames the larger debate in texts today, with vague answers looming large?
UNHCR says, “Refugees are people fleeing conflict or, persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk.” But it fails to improve the situations in their new settlements that aren’t less than abstracts of restricted freedom.