Refugees Eke Out a Hard Life in India

India is at the center of several nations undergoing massive change, but it's struggling to cope with its growing refugee populations.

Wazirabad village is where New Delhi, India’s capital, begins to fade away. A main street, unpaved and uneven, cuts through its heart, spewing narrow lanes choked in dust and lined with open drains.

Lane No. 9 in this outlying northern settlement on the banks of the Yamuna river leads to the conspicuous-sounding Afghani chowk, literally Afghan crossroads -- so called because of the number of Afghan refugees who live nearby.

At this stark intersection of four mud paths, Gul Din Khan walks slowly by a small row of shops, their colorful signs in Urdu, not Hindi as is usual in this part of northern India.

“The violence in Afghanistan got too much. I just had to leave,” Khan said.

Khan, who left in 1988, isn’t the only one to have left, nor the first. Numerous kameez-clad gentlemen lounge by the storefronts, smoking and chatting in the afternoon heat. In all, more than 9,000 Afghans have fled here, either during the war with the Soviet Union in the 70s, or during the most recent conflict, which began in 2001.

Though the recent fighting in Afghanistan hastened their exodus, Delhi has long been a key destination for Afghans on the run.

For centuries, wave after wave of military men, craftsmen, and peasants have poured into this city on India’s Gangetic plains.

“Delhi was home to a body of people who felt that they had very little opportunity in what is today modern-day Afghanistan,” said Sunil Kumar, a professor of history at the University of Delhi.

Indeed, between 1206 and 1526, a string of rulers ― Mamluk, Khilji, Tughlaq, Sayyid, and the Lodi dynasties ― with Central Asian roots ruled Delhi and formed what is now known, in historical parlance, as the Delhi Sultanate.

Delhi, Kumar explains, wasn’t merely a refugee city. It was a haven ― a sanctuary of Islam ― when the Mongol hordes were ravaging kingdom after kingdom.

Afghans make up just a fraction of the massive overall refugee population in Delhi. After the partition of India in 1947, some 10 million people moved from India to Pakistan, or vice-versa, partaking in the largest human migration in recorded history. A million died trying to make it across their respective borders.

In the six decades since independence, these men and women have rebuilt their lives, some more successfully than others. Kumar’s colleague at the University of Delhi’s history department is Upinder Singh; her father, Manmohan Singh, is a Sikh who left his home in Pakistan’s Punjab for India as the British exited the subcontinent -- and he’s also India’s prime minister.

Today, Delhi once again finds itself at the heart of refugee movements in South Asia. But in the din of India’s celebrated economic rise and its efforts to bring millions of its citizens out of poverty, its urban refugee population has been largely forgotten.

At stake are the lives of Gul Din Khan and about 30,000 others, by most conservative estimates. There are 23,500 refugees and asylum seekers in Delhi registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), consisting of more than 11,000 from Burma, 9,000 Afghans, and the 7,000 Tibetans that the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile estimates live in Delhi.

With continued threats to their lives and livelihoods back home, the refugees that live here struggle to make a living in a hostile metropolis.


There are few who took a more difficult path here than Gul Din Khan.

The Russian invasion in 1979 brought a Soviet-backed Afghan government in direct conflict with Mujahedeen rebels, trapping locals in the middle.

“I had to flee. My brother had to leave home, too,” he said. “But I have no news of him, or of my parents. I don’t know if my sisters got married. I don’t even know if any of them are alive.”

Khan hasn’t returned to Afghanistan since he left 25 years ago with a little more than the $80 that his father gave him to find a way out. It wasn’t enough to buy a ride out of Afghanistan on a car or a bus, so much of his journey was on foot and donkey-back.

Khan’s journey took him through the mountains between Paktika and Waziristan, then down half the length of Pakistan’s Indus highway to Karachi. After that, he spent time in Pakistan’s Hyderabad region, and finally went by camel into western India’s Gujarat province. It is a path that is nearly impossible to take today -- the border between India and Pakistan is now heavily militarized.

Yet there are other roads that remain open, such as India’s forested northeastern frontier with Burma, for instance.

Ning Khen Cing, now a shy 21-year-old, had just come home from school for lunch in August 2008 when five soldiers walked into her house in Kale township, in western Burma’s Sagaing division.

“I didn’t know what was going on. They asked me where my father and older brother were, but I had been at school all day, so I told them that I didn’t know. They didn’t believe me,” Cing said.

Earlier that day, the local police had caught her father, a farmer, with an anti-government newsletter, which Cing insists wasn’t his, while checking his tractor. Before they could arrest him, her father ran toward the Indian border, and her eldest brother who was with him also fled. The brother’s whereabouts remain unknown.

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Devjyot Ghoshal is a journalist based in New York.

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