Refugee : The label no one wants 

Afghan Refugees

Most people in the world have had the experience of leaving the place where they were born and grew up. Usually they will only move as far as the next big city or to a neighbouring state But for some people, they will need to leave their country entirely – sometimes for a short time, but sometimes forever. There are many reasons why people choose to go and live in a different country.Many leave voluntarily  to get a job or an education. Others are forced to avoid persecution or possibly torture. Millions flee from  conflicts or civil war. Some no longer feel safe and might have been targeted just because of their ethnicity, religion, sexuality or political opinions.

These journeys, which all start with the hope for a better future, are usually uncertain and dangerous.Many risk falling prey to human trafficking and other forms of exploitation. Some are detained by the authorities as soon as they arrive in a new country. Once they’re settling in and start building a new life, many face daily racism, xenophobia and discrimination.Some people end up feeling alone and isolated because they have lost the support networks that most of us take for granted – our communities, colleagues, relatives and friends. Each human being has more than one identity. “Refugee”, “migrant” and “asylum-seeker” are only temporary terms; they do not reflect the whole identity of women, children and men who have left their homes behind to start a new life in a new country. When we use these labels, we need to remember that out of the many ways in which people describe themselves, these terms only refer to one experience: that of leaving their countries. But the identities of these people are made up of so many more things.

I remember the time when the Taliban first began their rule in Afghanistan in 1996 and the first wave of refugees began arriving in India. The journey points for the Afghans seemed similar. Cross the border and set up camp in Peshawar. If they had family, some would stay put, a few would head to Islamabad and look for visas to the Western counties who might give them asylum. The slightly wealthier lot traveled to India and in several cities including Delhi where Afghan ghettos have existed for a while. Again many would just settle down there while others after having registered with the UNHCR and assuring themselves of a living allowance, would follow the same route of attempting a visa to emigrate. 

The process could take months as most did not have adequate documentation and many applications would be rejected. It was not uncommon for one person to have his or her application rejected while another got through. Or for one spouse to get a visa to Canada and another to Australia. It was a Hobson’s choice – to accept the visas and be parted from loved ones – possibly for life ; or spend an uncertain life in India. The Indian government has usually turned a blind eye to refugees landing at the country’s door. However India is not a signatory to the UN convention on Refugees and is not duty bound to accept refugees or to grant them political asylum. 

I was working with an NGO at the time – a humanitarian relief and development organization and based in Delhi. Strangely the leadership initially was not enthused by the thought of serving the refugees. Their contention was that there were enough needs in India itself that needed addressing and the Organization was not equipped to address additional needs. But eventually they agreed and a small intervention was started. At that time, the Taliban was particularly targeting those who had a Wstern style education – be it in Afghanistan. That emptied out most of the intelligentsia. Doctors, lawyers, Judges, academics and all other professionals. Although some were from the monied class, many found themselves in dire straits. Their professional degrees were not recognised in India and they were effectively unemployable. Coming from a privileged class, they did not have vocational skills that they could deploy easily. On the other hand, cooks, barbers, cobblers, could easily fit into the unorganised sector and start earning much faster. 

The educated men and women were almost desperate to migrate and settle abroad. There they could take a shot at reclaiming the kind of life that they were used to at home. However the” unskilled” sealed down much faster and even prospered. They had an inborn entrepreneurial spirit. With no papers and documentation that would allow them to apply for a formal loan, they would borrow from within the close knit Afghan community and setup small businesses catering to community needs. In the Afghan enclaves of Delhi for instance, you could find beauty parlours, traditional medicine practitioners, money changers, bakers and restaurants. 

All these hardships apart, what these refugees missed losing most of all was their identity. For most of us, the passport is an important document fished out at immigration counters and hotels as a proof of identity. But what if your passport or what you thought was one is no longer a document because the State that issued it to you has collapsed and all you have is a document declaring you to be a refugee ?  The word itself is so defeatist that the American Refugee Committee , a 4o year old humanitarian agency recently dropped the word “ refugee” from their name because they do not want people to be defined by a “ single dark moment” in their lives.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, close to 50,000 people become displaced every day. Everyone has a personal identity; one way in which this is acquired comes from our chosen country of residence through its economy, culture, and history. However, refugees, who have had to abandon the country in which they have been brought up and have lost all connection with any physical evidence of their past, have also lost this way of establishing a personal identity.As they’re often required to leave with little to no preparation, many arrive at camps without identification documents. Some lose their papers during the long journey to safety, and others belong to a large segment of people who, secure in their residency  have never held any proof of identity.  Identity is intrinsic to accessing basic human rights, and scores of people are left stranded without it. The ability to prove one’s identity can make the difference between getting help or being denied it, between asylum and deportation, and even between life and death.

If the chaos at Kabul airport is any indication, another generation of Afghans (seems only men though !) are on the verge of displacement and following in the footsteps of another generation.  Of that generation, some like the best selling novelist Khaled Hosseini have become famous and have brought Taliban rule before the world through his book “ The Kite Runner”. Others have melted away into anonymity into whichever country would accept them. Meanwhile I fear that history will repeat itself again in my lifetime. 

Shantanu Dutta is a Former Air Force Doctor and is a development worker for the last 25 years.

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