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Afghan refugees in India cast adrift amid pandemic

Dharvi Vaid New Delhi
October 5, 2020

They escaped conflict in Afghanistan, but now with no path to citizenship, and their livelihoods wrecked by coronavirus lockdowns, many Muslim Afghans see no future in India.

New Delhi's Lajpat Nagar neighborhood is home to many Afghans
Image: Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto/picture-alliance

It's a busy weekend for Ahmad Ghani as he drives through New Delhi's Lajpat Nagar neighborhood (pictured above).

Although Ghani just recovered from a COVID-19 infection, as the head of the Afghan Refugee Committee in India, he can't afford to be idle. Today he is helping mediate divorce proceedings for an Afghan couple. 

"This is mini Kabul," he says as he turns a corner and the landscape changes.

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The signs are now printed with Dari letters. The guest houses and pharmacies are colorfully lit to invite Afghans who visit Delhi mostly on medical tourism. The roads are flanked by Afghan grocery stores and restaurants, many of them now shuttered.

This part of the Indian capital is where much of India's Afghan refugee population calls home. The deserted streets here were once lined with Afghan refugees selling Kebab and Naan.

"The situation for Afghan refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic is very bad. Those from the community in New Delhi especially are daily wage workers. Their shops have been closed for over five months now," Ghani tells DW.

Citizens only

The Indian government only offers social protection packages for daily wage workers to Indian citizens. This means many of the 11,000 officially registered Afghan refugees in the country must fend for themselves during the coronavirus pandemic.

Indien Wintermarkt in Neu-Delhi
A bustling market in New Delhi's Lajpat Nagar neighborhood before coronavirusImage: DW/A. Ansari

The figure excludes asylum-seekers and those not registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Despite this, India has hosted refugees and asylum-seekers for decades.

According to the UNHCR, by the end of 2019 there were approximately 40,000 refugees and asylum-seekers registered in India. Afghans are the second-largest community, comprising 27% of the group.

India also has a very selective citizenship policy. The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed last year expedites the citizenship process only for Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist and Christian refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

With no easy path to citizenship, and their livelihoods wrecked by coronavirus lockdowns, many Muslim Afghans now feel uncertain about their future in India.

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Stuck between a pandemic and broken system

Fearing for his life, Sahil Zahiry left Afghanistan two years ago. The 28-year-old medical school graduate sought refuge in India, but he has not been able to find a solid foothold.  

"I was jobless for six months before I found work as a doctor's assistant in Delhi. I was an orthopedic doctor in a big hospital back home, but here I must do clerical work for someone else. I can't be a real doctor, and for me it is a shame," Zahiry told DW.

Zahiry says his citizenship status prevents him from getting ahead, as refugees are always asked to provide documentation that is only available to Indian citizens.

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"When we look for jobs, housing and schooling for our children, Indian authorities ask for papers. We have a 'blue card' but it has no meaning."                                                        

During the coronavirus lockdown, some Afghans have received financial support from their relatives abroad, but with high rents, many say they have barely managed to survive.

"Whatever little work we get here in restaurants and pharmacies involves working for 12 hours a day. Despite this, we end up earning only around €70 a month. How is that supposed to sustain us? We can't pay the electricity bill with that money, never mind rent. And now because of COVID-19 we don't even have that money," says 24-year-old Atiullah Azizi who worked at a pharmacy.

Refugees have for long grappled with overcharged rents in the Indian capital, often forcing large families to make do with a one-bedroom flat.

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"Where Indians pay €116-175 every month to rent an apartment, we are charged €291-350," said Zahiry who lives with his wife, father-in-law and brother-in-law.

As the situation shows no sign of improving, more and more asylum-seekers are now looking to return to Afghanistan. Some refugees claim that as many as 800 families have gone back.

"The lack of jobs and the economic situation during COVID-19 has forced many asylum-seekers to go back," said Ghani from the Afghan Refugee Committee.

"They know there is a bad life waiting for them in Afghanistan, they came here to escape conflict. But with no income and health facilities here they have no other option."