Thursday, May 1, 2014

Refugees require relief (not crocodile tears)

Hindus are out-migrating from (mostly Hyderabad) Pakistan. The real heroes in this story are the activist/journalist Zulfikar Shah who was assisting minorities in Pakistan and had to leave as punishment and police officer Nahar Singh who is helping refugees find a foot-hold in a country which is not their home.

We need many more of such heroes, but we also need the political class (as well as the elites) to give serious attention to the refugee problem. Why are Tibetans welcome but not Hindus (or for that matter muslims) from Pakistan? Refugees do not have any one religion, but they are all mostly poor, honest people who are traumatized. We need to do much more to help them out.

Two weeks ago, 16-year-old Bharti Rai from Hyderabad in Sindh, Pakistan, came to India on a one-way train ticket. She doesn't want to go back ever alleging oppression, sexual harassment and persecution as a religious minority across the border. Coming through Rajasthan, she is currently in Bijwasan village in outer Delhi. She is among 37 other Pakistani Hindu refugees who arrived in the village this month on a tourist visa, hoping to get asylum in India.

While Bharti arrived in the capital just two weeks ago, her brother, Gomadh Ram, a former farm worker from New Hala town in Sindh, was one of the first few who came to the capital back in 2011. The 34-year-old crossed the border on foot through Amritsar, and reached a settlement in the capital's Majnu ka Tila. He now sells fruits in Basai village for a living. He recently got an extension of two years on his tourist visa.

Nahar Singh, a politically-connected local police officer, has been helping such refugees for about three years now. Singh says he has taken 811 refugees under his wing since 2011. More than half of them made their way to India in 2012 when the Kumbh Mela was held in Allahabad, says Singh. He claims enjoying the support of right-wing organizations such as VHP, RSS and the Shiv Sena. Hindus form about 2% of the Pakistani population. The 2014 BJP manifesto has declared India 'a natural home for persecuted Hindus', while the party's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, has reiterated support for Hindu refugees in his speeches.

"Young women cannot step out of their homes in the evening in Sindh for fear of sexual harassment. Hindu men can't get their hair cut from a Muslim barber's shop. The two communities do not even share water," says Jamna, 40. Like many other women who have accompanied her, Jamna goes only by her first name.

On Monday afternoon, the shelter, located in a non-functioning school in Bijwasan, is buzzing with noise from excited children running in the corridors. The men are away searching for work. The asylum seekers realize that moving to India is not a panacea to their problems. "If we were discriminated against for religion in Pakistan, here we are discriminated against for being Pakistani. It is difficult to get respectable work in private companies or factories," says Gomadh Ram.
However, Chandrama, a middle-aged woman who arrived here with her three sons, said, "At least one has access to justice here. That doesn't happen in Pakistan."

Activist and former journalist Zulfiqar Shah is also a Pakistani refugee in the capital, currently living on the street near Jantar Mantar with his wife. Shah had worked on the denial of human rights to the Hindu minority in Pakistan, and he alleges it was one of the reasons why he was hounded out. "Roughly 500 Hindus leave Pakistan every year. The elite go to Dubai, US or the UK. The poor gravitate towards India," says Shah.

The group that arrived in Delhi comprises mostly of poor farm workers or well-off small business owners. At least two of them, who have been here over a longer period, have acquired Aadhaar cards, the details of which they are unable to divulge.

Last month, a temple in Larkana, Sindh, was set on fire after rumours of a Hindu desecrating the Quran fanned communal tension in the area. In March 2012, the case of Rinkle Kumari from Sindh made international headlines after it was alleged that she was abducted and forced to convert to Islam.

Hindus from Pakistan often travel to India on one-month pilgrim visas, purportedly to visit the innumerable Hindu holy places and shrines around the country. But since 2011, the number of Pakistani Hindus refusing to leave at the end of their stay has increased dramatically in response to the easing of visa regulations by the Indian government, which has announced that Hindus from Pakistan can get long term visas if they follow certain rules.
Most hail from Pakistan’s Hyderabad province, home to the majority of the country’s 2.5 million Hindus. Once in India, they can apply for refugee or asylum seeker status. But if their applications are denied, they can simply go on extending their visas. Those who stay usually end up living in tents on land offered on a temporary basis by religious groups or temples. But lack of identification documents means no real jobs, limited income and no means to benefit from state welfare schemes.

But religious freedom is meaningless unless Pakistani Hindus are given legal status and allowed to hold legitimate jobs so that they can provide adequately for their families, said Ram Das, a college graduate who came to India in 2011. Like most other asylum seekers from Pakistan, despite his education, Das now makes his living as a lowly street vendor.
“Wherever we go to look for better jobs, they ask for identity cards and when we show them our Pakistan passports, they refuse us straight away,” he said.
"We are neither Pakistanis nor Indians,” Das said, adding that the Indian government is not responding to their repeated applications for asylum or refugee status. “We get our visas extended, but how long can we go on like that? At least give us refugee status.”

Overall, Pakistani Hindus have not benefited as much as other migrants from Tibet, Myanmar and Afghanistan, who have been assisted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
 India shelters some 100,000 Tibetans, more than 110,000 Chin refugees, and some 250 who have fled Afghanistan.
Mal says that he has filed several requests for financial help at the UNHCR office, but all of these have been rejected.

A spokesperson for UNHCR said it's up to the Indian government to decide whether or not to assist refugees and asylum seekers from Pakistan.
“In the absence of a national legal framework for refugees in India, the UNHCR has an understanding with the government of India whereby the government assists refugees and asylum seekers from close neighboring countries" and UNHCR assists those from Myanmar and Afghanistan, Suchita Mehta, UNHCR public information officer said in an e-mail to
So for now, Pakistani Hindus can only wait patiently and continue extending their visas.
“When God has saved us from the atrocities in Pakistan, he will surely show us the way in India," said 25-year-old asylum seeker Bindiya. "Good days will come. It is just a matter of time."



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