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Somali nationals claiming asylum in India form a small but significant community of refugees who are seeking asylum in a region far from their roots. But the Government of India does not recognize Somali refugees, who are part of the approximately 11,257 refugees (also including Burmese, Iranians, Iraqis, Palestinians and Sudanese, among others) who can only rely on the ‘protection’ of the Indian office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Somali nationals claiming asylum in India form a small but significant community of refugees who are seeking asylum in a region far from their roots. But the Government of India does not recognize Somali refugees, who are part of the approximately 11,257 refugees (also including Burmese, Iranians, Iraqis, Palestinians and Sudanese, among others) who can only rely on the ‘protection’ of the Indian office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).2 Somalis mostly live in the following cities: Pune, New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Mysore and Aurangabad.

India has not ratified the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol, nor has it adopted domestic legislation to regulate refugee matters. The only claim these refugees can make in India is for the Refugee Status Certificate that the UNHCR will give if their claim to be a refugee is recognised under UNHCR’s Mandate. In the eyes of the Government of India, however, they are still foreigners illegaly resident in India, regulated by the Foreigners Act, the Registration of Foreigners Act and the Constitution of India.. Thus, refugees have to rely on UNHCR and its Implementing Partners for assistance and protection. While the courts have upheld the principle of non-refoulement under Article 21 (right to life) of the Constitution in numerous judgments, protection and assistance to refugees has been fraught with uncertainties.

While many Somalis first arrive in Hyderabad , to make a claim for refugee status they have to travel to Delhi, where the UNHCR office is located. Once recognized by UNHCR, refugees get a Refugee Status Certificate (which must be renewed every 18 months) and monetary support of Rs. 2245 (approximately $48 per month) for the principle applicant and half that amount for dependents. Educational, health, and old-age allowances may also be provided by UNHCR depending on need. Unlike Burmese refugees, Somalis do not hold a Residence Permit issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which helps refugees to access emergency medical care, employment and protection from harassment.3

Refugees and asylum seekers, irrespective of their mandate status, can technically approach the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are implementing partners of UNHCR or state institutions for health care and education. The implementing partners are the link between the refugees and the UNHCR. There are only three in all of New Delhi: the Young Men's Christian Association (which is mandated to assist refugees in vocational training, language education, and psycho-social assistance, especially to refugee women), the Socio-Legal Information Centre (a wing of a local NGO called the Human Rights and Law Network, which is mandated to provide legal aid and assistance, resolve any legal disputes involving refugees and, from August 2009, register asylum seekers) and Don Bosco Ashalayam (mandated to assist refugees in matters of employment).

The specific challenges facing Somalis refugees in India

Somali refugees form a unique refugee community in India for a variety of reasons. They are often victims of racial discrimination, police harassment and often identified as “drug dealers” according to news reports of arrests4 of 'Africans' by Indian authorities (there are difficulties of distinguishing Somalis from other Africans). Most are deprived of educational opportunities, find it impossible to gain employment and are unable to take care of basic needs such as shelter and health. These problems are a recurrent lament in the narrative of this community.

What also makes the case of the Somali refugees unique is that Somalis in India get “extended mandate” recognition from UNHCR, which, under International refugee law, limits the extent of legal protection to which they are entitled.5 UNHCR has unofficially acknowledged in informal conversation that Somalis in India, as in other parts of Asia such as Thailand, should not all be classified under the extended mandate. It is still not known what the implications of this unofficial acknowledgement means for Somalis in India, and it is very difficult to get information from the Indian government or UNHCR and its implementing partners in Delhi.

From February 2006 until March 2007, refugee status determination (RSD) for Somalis was suspended by UNHCR, who gave no reason for doing so. It is important to reiterate why the temporary suspension of RSD is significant for the Somali community, or for that matter, other mandate refugees in India. As asylum seekers whose refugee status determination is pending, Somalis in India are simply illegal foreigners. Until they have been officially recognised by UNHCR and provided with official documentation, they run the risk of arrest and deportation by the police under the Foreigners Act. When RSD was suspended, only some asylum seekers had been provided with UNHCR’s “Under Consideration Certificate”, which protected them from being deported as long as their claim was being considered by UNHCR. For the rest of the Somalis, UNHCR was closing its doors for what looked to them for an indefinite period of time and without valid reasons. It was only later during discussions with UNHCR in late 2008, that it became clear that this suspension was because of the possible trafficking of Somali children, which the UNHCR wanted to investigate. By the time the suspension was lifted, the Somalis’ trust in UNHCR had been sorely damaged.

In this scenario, basic entitlements such as access to health care, education and employment are not so easily accessed. While technically, refugees can access government facilities, the absence of legal documents (such as a valid work permit or a Residence Permit), the high costs of accessing these resources coupled with the chaos and confusion that prevails with the government institutions (such as hospitals and the education system) and the ineffectiveness of assistance from the Implementing partners make navigating the system a nightmare for refugees.

Take the example of employment. Even qualified Somalis (some are qualified engineers, computer professionals, and so on) cannot seek work because of the absence of work permits. Don Bosco, one of the UNHCR’s implementing partners, has so far been unwilling to facilitate employment in the informal sector as they do in case of the Burmese. Don Bosco has held the position that they are unable to help the Somalis because the latter do not hold Residence Permits. There are some self-employment schemes open to the Somali refugees which allows them to earn Rs. 2000 a month but many qualified individuals or those with families to take care of are unwilling or unable to take this up.

Finding accommodation in New Delhi is a herculean task to say the least. Following a discussion with the Somali community, UNHCR set up a Task Force for Housing in 2008. Somalis on the task force were expected to assist others in finding houses and resolving any problems that arose. But, since Somali members of the task force did not speak the local language nor have familiarity of the society in Delhi, this expectation was unrealistic.

Educational opportunities are limited in Delhi. Goverment schools, for example, require some sort of proof of identity and a birth certificate (which most Somalis do not possess). Additionally, the medium of education is Hindi for primary, secondary and tertiary education, which means that older children find it difficult to assimilate and to study. Educational assistance from UNHCR is Rs.2,500 or Rs. 3,100 in instalments (over a period of one year), but this amount only covers fees, not the costs of books, school uniform and travel expenses.

Health care is one of the most pressing concerns. Government hospitals are chaotic and confusing, even for Indians and, as they cater for the poor of Delhi and staff are invariably understaffed and overworked, Somalis find them less than welcoming. Furthermore in emergency cases, approaching government hospitals means waiting for long periods, which puts Somali in life-threatening situations. The YMCA is also bureaucratic, unhelpful and not transparent in providing information on how it can assist.

By way of conclusion, a few points may be made to highlight some of the emerging concerns and suggesting ways that will make assistance more transparent and efficient. Both UNHCR and the implementing partners need to be more transparent as to how their policies are implemented. Even after years of working with refugees, it is not clear as to the nature of assistance and the organizations that can be approached. It would help for implementing partners to build skills and capacities of the local staff to assist refugees either in the hospitals or accompanying them to schools or the police station so that language does not become a hurdle. Often, the refugees themselves, working with these organizations are asked to accompany fellow refugees, which misses the purpose of assistance, unless a well planned training program that includes language training, explains how Government institutions work and what information should the social workers have to assist efficiently.

Further, costs in Delhi have increased and therefore the monetary assistance that Somalis receive now do not help them meet even the most basic needs. Like other refugee groups, facilitating employment for them, either in the informal economy or through self-initiatives, would go some way in lessening the hardships. Somali refugees have recently been asking UNHCR Delhi to repatriate them, on the grounds that the living conditions in Delhi are appalling. Some of them living in India for over a decade and see no hope of any improvement in their situation. Given that the Government of India is unlikely to pass a refugee protection law in the near future, Somalis in India remain a forgotten community.

*Liban Mohammed Jama and Sahana Basavapatna