God has a bureaucracy

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Unique solution Obaid Jan with friends in his barsati, reminiscing about home
Unique solution Obaid Jan with friends in his barsati, reminiscing about home. Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

WHEN ALI Mirzia visited India for the first time, he came as an Afghan contestant at the Asian Kickboxing Championship in Mumbai. He left as the welter-weight gold medallist. He was back in 2008, this time as a refugee, escaping religious oppression. Ali is an Afghan Christian. He converted to Christianity in his native country, the hotbed of Islamic intolerance. In India, he registered with the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) in January 2008, but his appeal for refugee status was rejected after he failed a determination test. He filed an appeal, but early this year, his case was closed. “I cannot go home. My life is on the line. They will ask me to renounce my faith. I can’t do that.” Since then, Ali says, his case has been reopened, but he is yet to hear from the UNHCR.

Obaid Jan, like Ali, fled to India in 2007 with his family to escape persecution. He leads the Afghani Church in Delhi. “As soon as we arrived, we applied for asylum. But officially, I’m still an illegal entrant in India.”

He expected things to change once he was here. Instead, he was nearly run over by a car while walking through Malviya Nagar. “My assailants returned, but I managed to run away. I keep receiving death threats from these people,” he says, without naming who ‘they’ were, but hinting they are fellow Afghan nationals. Hameed Ullah, Obaid’s friend, was assaulted by motorcyclists in the Hauz Rani locality of Malviya Nagar on 14 June 2010. He had to be admitted to hospital. In his words, this was the beginning of the persecution against him and his community.

Saheeba Meenai, a senior lawyer with the Socio Legal Information Center (SLIC) under the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), works with the UNHCR as a legal aid and advice partner. She says that the refugees are given the best possible legal protection and aid. “Our lawyers accompany them to police stations to lodge complaints and register cases. We are sensitising the police that these people are not illegal immigrants but refugees.”

Obaid and Hameed have a different story to tell. After the attack, Obaid went to register a complaint, accompanied by a lawyer from SLIC. They police refused to take it down, stating he had no evidence to prove he had been threatened, as he could not provide the registration number of the motorbike. The reason he could not do so, he says, is because he had barely managed a glimpse of his attackers. Finally, after much pleading, his lawyer managed to register the complaint on 26 June 2010. It ends with the plea “… I am very scared as we are isolated… and there is no one to look after us if something happens. Please do something to protect me and my family”. Both told TEHELKA they are sure they were attacked because they had converted.

There is a back-story to this attrition. In early 2003, Abdul Rahman, a 41-year-old Afghan, was granted asylum in Italy. Back home, he was facing a death sentence because he had converted to Christianity. He was arrested and held in a prison outside Kabul, before he managed to escape following international pressure. Since then he had become the face of the cause of Afghan converts.

In 2004, the Afghan Constitution was ratified in accordance with Islamic Laws. On 31 May 2010, the Deputy Secretary of the Lower House of the Afghan Parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, called for the execution of Christian converts from Islam, after a documentary was aired on an Afghan television channel, showing Christian converts with their names and faces.

In India, the process of granting refugee status follows its own dynamics. “We want the process to be as fair as possible. We assess the claims of all the asylum seekers using the same criteria and recognise as refugees, those who fall within the the definition as given in the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees,” says Nayana Bose, the Associate External Relations Officer at the UNHCR.

Till 30 June 2010, there were 13,729 refugees recognised by the UNHCR in India, the majority (8,976) being Afghans. Christians make up about 1-2 percent of this total, about 100-150 in all, according to Obaid. Neither the UNHCR, nor the Indian authorities claim to have any figures based on religious affiliation. Once in India, the average Afghan, irrespective of his religion, struggles to make ends meet. On the basis of the refugee certificate, about 60 percent get work in the informal sector, volunteering as guides and interpreters for medical tourists. “There are about four or five families with relatives in rich countries like the US or Australia, who send them money. Very few get support from our churches here. The situation is bleak. Last week I got a call from an Afghan friend, who told me he has no money to buy food. There is another woman in Mehrauli, who has not eaten for two days now,” says Obaid.

There are a lot of Afghans who come to India for different reasons. Many come on tourist, student, and medical visas. A few among them apply to UNHCR, seeking asylum, says Nayana Bose, UNHCR

The UNHCR gives 2,250 as assistance to the principal applicant of a refugee family for three months. Other family members get 750. Till 2007, refugees got up to six months of assistance. Bose says that the idea of cutting back on the support span was to decrease dependency on the organisation. “We want to help equip refugees with the skills required in an urban context . Like most organistaions, the UNHCR funding has also decreased. Before stopping the financial assistance for a refugee, each individual case is reviewed to see whether or not that person or family is able to find work in the informal sector and make a living. The idea is to help refugees use their skills and increase their abilities to generate an income.”

WE WERE the last (Christian) family to leave Kabul. Had we not left that day, we would have been arrested,” says Aman, another refugee. He came to India in June 2010. Having registered with the UNHCR, he will have to wait between four months and two years to get a refugee status card.

Obaid got his card in January this year. Others are not as lucky. After a final rejection by the UNHCR, they are left in limbo. They stay back in the country trying to make ends meet. Most of the Afghans live in well-networked pockets in and around Delhi, like Mehrauli, Sheikh Sarai, Ashram and Madangir. “We get attacked for having converted, so we live in closed communities. We have a good network among ourselves and help out each other but there is only so much we can do,” says Obaid.

“There are a lot of Afghans who came to India for different reasons. Many come on Tourist, Student and Medical Visas. A few among them apply to the UNHCR, seeking asylum.,” says Bose, when asked about repatriation. She refused to divulge the number of cases rejected by the UNHCR.

But according to Obaid, “Many do not have the money or resources to go back to Afghanistan. And for Christians, it is all the more difficult.” Result: many stay back illegally. After all, for the Afghan Christian, says Obaid with an air of resignation in his voice, there is no home.

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