Navigating the Struggles of Afghan Refugees Settling in India

By Muhammad Burhan

India has a long tradition of providing refuge to those fleeing persecution, a reflection of its unique culture and ancient history. Over the decades, Afghan migrants have turned to India as a refuge from the ongoing conflict in their homeland. Despite the country’s welcoming spirit, its legal and administrative frameworks often fall short in adequately meeting the needs of these refugees.

Since the 1980s, Afghan refugees have sought asylum in India to escape the violence and unrest in Afghanistan. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are approximately 19,000 Afghan refugees in India, although only 11,000 of them are recognized as asylum seekers. This statistic highlights the difficulties many Afghans face in obtaining official recognition and the associated privileges. Furthermore, this number does not include the 13,000 Afghan students and military trainees who were stranded in India after 2021 due to legal uncertainties. The situation deteriorated dramatically when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, leading to a mass exodus of Afghans. In response to this humanitarian crisis, India issued emergency visas to Afghan nationals. However, these six-month visas came with significant restrictions, including bans on attending school or working in India. These restrictions have exacerbated the precarious situation of Afghan refugees, leaving them insecure and with few options to rebuild their lives. Despite the overwhelming need, only 200 e-visas were issued in December 2021 for the 60,000 Afghans seeking asylum in India. Notably, most of these visas were granted to Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan, suggesting a possible bias in the selection process.

The legal treatment of Afghan refugees in India is governed by the Foreigners Act of 1946 and the Citizenship Act of 1955. These laws do not differentiate between economic migrants and those fleeing war, violence or persecution, resulting in a lack of targeted support for those in urgent need. By labelling Afghan refugees and asylum seekers as “illegal migrants”, these laws deny them access to essential social services and protection from refoulement (forced return to their home country where they may face persecution). This legal stance places thousands of Afghans in a vulnerable position, often leading to severe socio-economic deprivation. Many Afghans who have been living in India for over a decade continue to face significant challenges. They live on the margins of society due to the lack of stable income, education and healthcare. The newer generation, born and raised in India, also faces limited opportunities for integration and advancement.

Recent statistics from the UNHCR, cited by the International Journal of Creative Research Thought (IJCRT) in 2023, paint a grim picture of the challenges faced by Afghan refugees in India. Education, crucial to human development, is only accessible to about 25 percent of Afghan refugee children in India. The closure of the Sayed Jamaluddin Afghan School in Bhogal, which educated over 200 Afghan refugee children, is an example of the educational hurdles faced by this community. The closure has been attributed to lack of funding and the Delhi government’s perceived indifference towards Afghans, further depriving these children of their right to education.

Employment opportunities, which can provide some stability, are only accessible to about 20 percent of Afghan refugees in India. Most of these individuals are confined to low-paying, insecure jobs, barely able to support their families. As a result, the majority of Afghan refugees in India face persistent economic hardship. Healthcare, a basic human right, remains out of reach for more than 50 percent of Afghan refugees in India. Lack of access to healthcare can exacerbate existing health problems and lead to the spread of preventable diseases, especially when combined with the poor living conditions in which many Afghans live. Many Afghan refugees live in substandard conditions with inadequate access to clean water and sanitation, essential for healthy living. These conditions pose serious health risks and further marginalize the Afghan community. In addition to these physical hardships, Afghan refugees also face discrimination and harassment based on their ethnicity, religion, and language. Such discrimination can have profound psychological consequences, making integration into Indian society even more difficult. India’s decision to revoke the visas of Afghan students, despite thousands of them relying on Indian universities for their education, has been criticized. Such policy decisions can have long-term consequences and affect the future of many young Afghans. Moreover, there seems to be a contradiction in India’s position: while the BJP-led government’s policies are often criticized as anti-Islamic, Afghanistan identifies itself as an Islamic emirate. This ideological divergence complicates the relationship between the two countries.

The plight of Afghan refugees in India is a multifaceted issue that requires urgent attention. Addressing the challenges faced by this community requires more than just humanitarian assistance; it requires a comprehensive approach that respects the rights and dignity of Afghan refugees. It is crucial that India rethinks its policies and provides the necessary support to ensure that Afghan refugees can live a life of dignity and hope in their adopted homeland. India’s rich history of providing refuge is being tested as it tackles the complex issue of Afghan refugees. A thoughtful and compassionate approach, with clear distinctions between economic migrants and those fleeing persecution, is essential. Only then can India truly uphold its tradition of hospitality and provide Afghan refugees with the support they so desperately need.