Uncertain haven: Afghan refugees in India

Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s seizure of power in August 2021, the Afghan refugee crisis, already one of the worst in the world, has intensified. Much attention has focused on Pakistan and Iran, where the largest numbers of Afghan refugees are living, and India’s response to the crisis has been mostly overlooked.

India is one of the largest Asian donors to Afghanistan and its policy and public discourse have focused on its concern for, and ties with, the Afghan people. India’s support has been expressed in wheat and medicine shipments, but the country is hosting significantly fewer Afghan refugees than Pakistan and Iran. The lack of greater help for Afghans seeking asylum stems from both India’s refugee policy and its geopolitical concerns regarding Afghanistan and the region.

India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no domestic legislation outlining the rights of, and protections for, refugees. The Foreigners Act of 1946 governs matters pertaining to refugees, conflating asylum seekers with foreigners who voluntarily enter India. In the absence of a concrete policy, India’s executive branch has wide discretionary powers in determining which refugees are protected, imprisoned or deported.

In addition to Afghans, refugees from China, Myanmar and Sri Lanka form the majority of the 290,000 refugees and asylum seekers that India currently hosts. However, protections are not applied consistently to these various groups. Tibetan refugees persecuted by Chinese authorities have been granted registration certificates and are routinely offered other support. Rohingya refugees, however, face severe discrimination and are often placed in detention centres and deported. Differential treatment of asylum seekers based on their ethnicity or country of origin mirrors concerns about the creation by some Western powers of a two-tiered system of refugee protection.

Without formal state protection, refugees face hurdles in India. Determination of their status is divided between the government and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Only refugees arriving from neighbouring countries directly approach the Ministry of Home Affairs. Refugees from non-neighbouring countries, such as Afghanistan, approach the UNHCR office in New Delhi for refugee status determination. They are then issued a UN refugee card without which they cannot access basic services and programs such as education, healthcare, affordable housing and formal employment. Based on this card, the government can issue residential permits to refugees. However, without a domestic law recognising the UNHCR cards—or providing any official status to the organisation’s operations in India—the rights extended to these card holders depend on the political will of the Indian government.

India has witnessed various phases of the Afghan refugee movement over the years, triggered initially by political instability in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the first Taliban regime in 1996. The first naturalisations of Afghan refugees, however, occurred more than a decade later, and by 2006, 13 Afghan refugees had become naturalised Indian citizens. Of those, 12 were Hindus and Sikhs. According to UNHCR data, there are currently 19,338 Afghan refugees in India, though that excludes nearly 13,000 Afghan students stuck in India since 2021 and former Afghan military personnel in legal limbo in India.

In 2021, as an immediate response to the influx of refugees after the Taliban takeover, India announced emergency visas for Afghan nationals. However, they are only valid for six months and don’t grant the right to education or private employment in India. Moreover, while 60,000 applications were filed by September 2021, only 200 e-visas had been granted by December that year. The executive’s actions and statements suggest that Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan were prioritised for visas over other vulnerable Afghan communities.

India’s broader approach towards Afghanistan is shaped considerably by its geopolitical position. Afghanistan’s place in Indian policymaking has predominantly reflected the India–Pakistan proxy war, exacerbated by Afghanistan’s landlocked status and political instability. Between 2002 and 2021, India was an active stakeholder in Afghanistan’s reconstruction, committing financial resources and crucial public goods and services. Yet India remained absent from the negotiations between the US and the Taliban that led to the Doha agreement in 2020 which facilitated the Taliban’s return to power in 2021. India’s political engagement with the Taliban since 2021 continues to be vaguely administered, with its diplomatic position left ambiguous. The Pakistan factor in India’s Afghan policy has also remained: India continues to highlight terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, particularly Pakistan’s role in abetting terror groups.

Simultaneously on the Indian domestic front, controversial policies amid an increased focus on Hindu religious nationalism led to the enactment of the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act, a widely debated law that promises protection to persecuted minorities fleeing India’s neighbouring countries, to the exclusion of Muslim minorities. For Afghan refugees, this discriminatory policy meant that India would give preference to Sikh and Hindu Afghan refugees over others, increasing the precarity for Muslim asylum seekers from Afghanistan.

The political discourse in India also projects refugees as security threats, as seen in the fraught debates surrounding Rohingya refugees. There have been several recent calls for reform in India’s refugee policy to incorporate its commitment to international human rights institutions, including the UN Human Rights Committee, the Convention against Torture and more broadly the mandate of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

India’s current trajectory to become a regional and global power and to make a place for itself within the ‘rules-based order’ is also at odds with its refugee policy. It has joined the Global Compact on Refugees under the auspices of the UN General Assembly to achieve an equitable and sustainable solution for refugees. However, the compact is not legally binding, and legal protections for refugees remain unchanged, with routine yet ineffectual discussions surrounding India’s asylum policy.

Managing borders and processes for people seeking asylum is a complicated affair in most countries, yet India needs a clear refugee policy. Despite a stated position that places the Afghan people at the centre of Indian policy overtures, the status of refugees is being left to the mercy of arbitrary political decisions. With India holding the G20 presidency in 2023 under the theme of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’) and with a commitment to a human-centric approach, it’s time for the government to address this gap in its refugee policy.