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Afghan Refugees In India Fret Over The News Back Home, And Their Own Legal Status

Mohammed Reza Zafar, a 35-year-old Afghan refugee, poses with his United Nations refugee card at the Afghan bakery where he works in New Delhi.
Mohammed Reza Zafar, a 35-year-old Afghan refugee, poses with his United Nations refugee card at the Afghan bakery where he works in New Delhi.

Updated August 19, 2021 at 1:36 PM ET

NEW DELHI — Afghan music wafts through a market called Kabuli, named for Afghanistan's capital. Narrow lanes are lined with travel agents advertising journeys on Kam Air, an Afghan airline. The bakeries sell thick, doughy Afghan bread. People here speak Dari and Pashto, two main languages of Afghanistan.

But this is India's capital, New Delhi, and this market, on the city's west side, is the hub of the country's small Afghan community. This week, it's where many residents have been watching events in Afghanistan from afar with horror and worry.

"I'm so sad for Afghanistan, for all the people in danger, and for my family," says Nuria Siddiqui, 40, a former teacher from Kabul who came to India four years ago for an MBA program. She has since applied for refugee status through the U.N. refugee agency.

The Taliban's takeover of Kabul and return to power after nearly 20 years brings back painful memories for many Afghan refugees in India, some of whom grew up under the Taliban. Desperate scenes of people trying to escape Afghanistan have forced this small, struggling refugee community to put aside its own legal anxieties temporarily and focus on what's happening back home.

Siddiqui flicks through photos on her cellphone of a nephew in Kabul who was injured in recent fighting — one of several relatives she is trying to evacuate to India. But visa offices are shut, and Kabul's airport is in chaos.

India is one of many destinations Afghans fled to after the Soviet invasion more than 40 years ago, during the mujahedeen years that followed, the U.S. invasion nearly 20 years ago — and intermittent fighting ever since.

Like Siddiqui, thousands of Afghans get student visas to attend university in India. (Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai came to India in 1976 and studied in the northern city of Shimla for six years.) Many Afghan students try to stay in India afterward.

But Afghans and many other refugees have an ambiguous legal status in India. It may explain why their numbers here are relatively small.

A street scene in front of Kabuli Market in Tilak Nagar, a neighborhood on the west side of India's capital New Delhi. It's the hub of India's small Afghan refugee community.
Lauren Frayer / NPR
Kabuli Market is the hub of India's small Afghan refugee community. It's in Tilak Nagar, a neighborhood on the west side of New Delhi.

Complicated legal status

Experts say India is home to about 18,000 documented Afghan refugees. That's lower than other countries in the region such as Pakistan and Iran, and even the United States. Yet Afghans are one of the largest documented refugee groups in India, along with the Rohingya.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees operates an office in New Delhi, which grants refugee status to many Afghans and others, and issues them identification cards. The office has been closed since March 2020 because of the coronavirus, and the staff has been working remotely — which applicants say has exacerbated delays with their paperwork.

However, despite the UNHCR's operations in Delhi, India has not signed onto U.N. refugee agreements. At times, the government has granted temporary protection to certain groups, including Tibetans and Sri Lankans. But it lacks an overall asylum framework. So even with U.N. refugee status, many Afghans struggle to make long-term plans in India.

"We cannot work [legally], we cannot study proper[ly]," says Muneer Ahmed Faiz, who fled his home in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, eight years ago when he was 16. "In Afghanistan I saw lots of people ... die in front of me. Like, there was blood. This was a very bad experience."

Faiz says he's appreciative of the Indian government for allowing him to live here, but he wants to do more than merely stay safe: He wants to work, study and prosper.

Instead, he lives in a cramped flat in western Delhi with his aunt and her four children — one of whom is disabled from a bomb blast in Afghanistan. The United Nations gives his aunt a monthly stipend of 4,000 rupees (just under $54) for the boy's care. An uncle in Norway also sends money.

"It's not like going to Europe or the U.S. where eventually you can become a citizen, or at least a permanent resident. In India, you don't have that option, which means even after 10 years being an Afghan refugee in India, it can still be difficult to get formal employment or go to university," says Hamsa Vijayaraghavan, a former UNHCR representative and lawyer who has represented Afghans and other refugees.

Vijayaraghavan says the reason India doesn't have an asylum framework likely has to do with the fact it is a developing country itself, with high unemployment and low wages.

"We don't need the human resource refugees could provide in Europe or U.S., for example. We don't have those labor shortages," she says. "So I don't think the Indian government has felt the need for a formal policy."

India welcomes Afghan minorities

There are specific groups from Afghanistan, however, to whom India has extended extra help: persecuted religious minorities.

In 2019, India's Hindu nationalist government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which provides a pathway to Indian citizenship for migrants from neighboring Muslim countries — but only if they are not Muslim. Supporters say the idea behind the law is that India, a democracy, should provide refuge to religious minorities — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Jains or Parsis — who might be persecuted by less democratic regimes.

Critics say the legislation discriminates against Muslims. The law's passage triggered huge street protests across India in late 2019 and early 2020 before the pandemic.

Now, reacting to the Taliban's takeover of Kabul last weekend, the Indian government has said it's making special efforts to help evacuate Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan, an estimated 750 people.

Some Indians have criticized their government for singling out members of those religions when most Afghans are Muslim.

"India should keep its doors open to all at this hour," one critic wrote on Twitter.

A short-term destination

With Afghan refugees unable to work legally in India, many don't plan to stay long. Some have asked the U.N. refugee agency to resettle them elsewhere, in Europe or Canada. Those who worked with U.S. forces in Afghanistan may be eligible for visas to the United States, too.

That's the case for Mohammed Reza Zafar, 35, who says he worked from 2009 to 2013 as a private security contractor with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in his hometown of Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan.

Mohammed Reza Zafar worked with U.S. forces in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, before fleeing to India. He has refugee status from the U.N., but no work permit in India, so he works off the books at an Afghan bakery in New Delhi. His application for resettlement in the U.S. has been stalled for two years.
Lauren Frayer / NPR
Mohammed Reza Zafar worked with U.S. forces in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, before fleeing to India. He has refugee status from the U.N. but no work permit in India, so he works off the books at an Afghan bakery in New Delhi. His application for resettlement in the U.S. has been stalled for two years.

"They taught me how to shoot!" Zafar says. "It was a good job, making good money, escorting the Army Corps of Engineers as they built police stations and other infrastructure. But then life started getting worse there. It was more dangerous."

He got a tourist visa to India, decided to stay — and four years ago, got refugee status through the United Nations. He says he'd ultimately like to travel onward to the United States, and has applied for a special immigrant visa, but his application has been stalled for two years.

During that time, Zafar has been working informally at an Afghan bakery in western Delhi, making just enough money to feed himself and his wife — but not enough to save anything.

Frustrated with their inability to get work permits, some Afghans in Delhi have even returned to Afghanistan during periods when it looked more stable. Some have ended up being killed in fighting there.

For Siddiqui, the former teacher who is trying to evacuate her injured nephew from Kabul, going back is not an option.

"Never!" she says. "Because of my daughters and education." Siddiqui has four daughters, whom she fears wouldn't be allowed to go to school, now that the Taliban are back in charge.

She knows from experience: As a teenage girl in the late 1990s, under Taliban rule, Siddiqui was forced to stay home from school for five years.

She doesn't want that for her daughters.

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