Attempts by the Indian government to deport tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees have thrust the country’s laws into the spotlight.
Lawyers representing the Rohingyas have reiterated the constitutional right (of citizens and non-citizens alike) to equality, life, and personal liberty in India. Meanwhile, the government has claimed such refugees may pose a security threat to the state.
Both sides have been making their case to the Supreme Court.
What effect does this legal precariousness have on the ground? For one thing, it means the majority of refugees in India head for cities—where there is the possibility of anonymity and opportunities for work.
Delhi is often the preferred destination for refugee groups that fall within the UNHCR’s mandate. In the capital, these groups have the possibility to get refugee certificates and access to certain support services, such as education, health, livelihoods, and legal counseling.
However, these services are limited in number, reach, and budget. They can also be curtailed at short notice. Often, refugees in urban India can only rely on themselves.
Self-organised social safety nets look different for different groups. In the early 1990s, nearly 50,000 Sikh and Hindu refugees fled Afghanistan following a spike in ethnoreligious violence. In 1992, a group of them in Delhi set up their own organisation—the Khalsa Diwan Welfare Society (KDWS)—dedicated to the support of their refugee community. KDWS is funded through membership fees and helps other Sikh and Hindu Afghan refugees (numbering around 15,000 in Delhi) struggling to receive the assistance they need from the Indian government.
It focuses on education and skills development, including teaching devotional music, language classes, stitching, and computer skills. More informally it offers reconciliation and support for domestic disputes and grievances. Because of their perceived resilience and community cohesion, they are viewed as a…