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.
“My mother and my younger brother left directly … for the border. Another younger brother and I followed the next day,” Cing said. The border crossing at India’s Mizoram state was just 120 kilometers away from Kale township.
They walked into Mizoram, as have many of the 100,000 Chins, the term for one of the largest ethnic minorities in Burma, who now live there in exile. “There was security, but they didn’t even notice because we weren’t carrying anything with us,” she explained. “And anyway, we look like the Mizo people.”
Eventually they made their way to Bodella, on Delhi’s western edge, where much of the 11,000-strong Chin refugee community lives. A year later, Cing’s father joined them in their small rented room after making the long journey himself.
“I don’t know how my father reached here,” admits Cing, now the main breadwinner for the family of five with her odd jobs translating and working shifts at a call center.
Refugees in India have no legal right to work, so many are forced to take up low-paying casual work.
“The future? If I’m still here in Delhi, I don’t have any future. Eating, sleeping and just earning from temporary jobs,” she said.
In the fly-infested alleyways of Bodella, the Burmese enclave in West Delhi, Padal and Nu Ning, a Chin refugee couple in their 50s, were evicted from the small room that they rented because they couldn’t pay the rent.
Padal, a farmer from Faltang village near Tedim township in western Burma, had to flee after the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military, accosted his son and raped his daughter-in-law. Like thousands of other Chins, the couple made for the Mizoram border before finally arriving in Delhi.
Now, Padal can’t even work as a day laborer because of the injuries he sustained at the hands of the military. The doctors in Delhi, whom he can access through UNHCR, have recommended near-complete bed rest, given him an elaborate back-brace, and prohibited him from lifting anything heavy.
But what his wife, Nu Ning, earns by knitting is not nearly enough to pay the monthly rent and buy three meals a day.
The couple didn’t qualify UNHCR’s subsistence allowance, which is usually only offered to unaccompanied minors and families without any earning members. UNHCR officials say that the assistance, typically in the range of $40 per month, is approved on a case-by-case basis.
Homeless and barely employed, Padal and Nu Ning were rescued by their church, which now provides them housing and some meals.
Despite the wave of democratization that swept through Burma in the past year, many of the 100,000 or so Chin refugees from Western Burma don’t wish to return home because they fear that the military will continue to harass them. Many of them continue to live in Mizoram, in India’s northeastern frontier, with little access to the UNHCR or other NGOs. The population is largely undocumented and not officially recognized as refugees.
In Bodella, where most Chin refugees eventually seek shelter, Dr. Tint Swe’s clinic offers free healthcare twice a week. Swe shares his name, ironically, with Burma’s last “censor-in-chief,” the man once responsible for all that was published under the military junta.
India is neither a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, which provides the legal foundation for the UNHCR’s functioning and for the definition of refugees, nor does it have a refugee law.
What’s more, a combination of the Foreigners Act of 1946 and the Indian Citizenship Act of 2003 makes it nearly impossible for any refugee there to seek long-term employment. Refugee cards are not sufficient ID for most institutions, including most schools and universities. Tibetans are an exception -- the Indian government issues them resident permits, which are to be renewed annually.
But for all the challenges that Delhi throws at its refugees, some do benefit from living in the capital city of an economic powerhouse.
Hameed Ghiasy, a 21-year-old Afghan musician, knows this better than most. He started singing with his father at soirees and weddings in Afghanistan during the few years he spent there as a teenager.
The oldest son of the Ghiasy family wanted an education when he came to India, something that never happened because he didn’t have the required identification documents for admissions.
Instead, he found himself in a band called Yuva Beats, today comprising three fellow Afghan refugees, including his younger brother, and two Indians he met at a music school where he once taught.
Backed by the UNHCR, the band found some success, singing initially at events the agency organized, then expanding to performances at local colleges.
Now, Hameed wants to cut an album, and from a makeshift studio in his family apartment, he puts together songs on a second-hand multi-track recorder.
It’s hardly surprising that he doesn’t want to go back. “India is where the opportunities are,” he said. “I can’t do this in Afghanistan.”