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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 17, April 19, 2014

Bharti in NHRC net: Some Facts Beyond

Sunday 20 April 2014

by Mahaswetha Dass

The concern over the lack of a legal mechanism for the protection of refugees and stateless persons in the South Asian region had been a topic of concern for many working for the protection of their human rights. In the urban scenario, the lack of proper health care system, sanitation, housing, education and the right to work makes it a day-to-day struggle process for these vagabonds. Xenophobia and racism are often an underlying threat and the situation isn’t much different in India.

India is multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-racial “like the United Nations. I tell my Chinese friends to learn from India.” This is how Dalai Lama had once described our country that provided refuge to thousands of Tibetans under his leadership. Has anything changed by far? Well...while the demand for an anti-racism law is at its peak over discrimination against people from the North-East in mainland India, especially after the Nido Tania fiasco, human rights organisations are busy condemning the mid-night raid on two African nationals in Delhi’s Khirki Extension, which is also collo-quially called mini-Africa because of the community’s dominance in this area. But not all Africans in the area are students with visas, a large number of them living in the match-box sized rooms in some shabby buildings are refugees.

India, like all other South Asian states, is not party to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 (1951 Convention) and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees 1967 (1967 Protocol). Though it claims to have extended a helping hand to refugees from time to time in need despite not implementing the 1951 Convention for its Euro-centric nature that might not be effective in the South Asian region, critics accuse the country of keeping itself at an arm’s length from accepting financial responsi-bility to avoid the Convention’s obligations. The absence of proper legal and financial assistance for refugees in the urban areas in the Indian territory often leave them under confusion and suspicion that causes security threats like violence and exploitation. This is more evident in case of women, especially those trying to make a living on their own in an alien country amidst members of the opposite sex who are often not trustworthy enough even in their own community. Race and colour boost up gender- biased discrimination and most often African nationals stand a greater chance of coming under its purview.

The infamous incident of the mid-night raid on January 15 by Somnath Bharti (AAP), the then Law Minister of Delhi, and his supporters in the Khirki Extension over the alleged drug and prostitution racket testifies their living conditions further. Sure Bharti must have got the consent of many locals in the area to carry out such an act, and anybody who has worked extensively in the refugee-dominated areas of Delhi cannot completely turn down such accusations from a broader perspective. News reports about certain African nationals’ alleged involvement in criminal activities in the city is not new. But does that give an honourable Law Minister and his supporters the right to barge into the house of two Ugandan women at mid-night and humiliate them in public by allegedly manhandling and collecting their urine samples, as was reported widely? Or is it that anarchism allows any individual to become his own dictator to violate the human rights of individual, particularly women in this case? Well, I think the AAP leadership should have been more cautious in dealing with this sensitive issue post-incident, more so because it involved foreign nationals and the women factor. True, we don’t want a government tolerating nuisance in any disguise if it existed at all but we don’t want insensitivity to creep in either, especially when it could tarnish the image of India on issues related to racism at an international level.

Somnath Bharti might have justified his act time and again following an FIR registered against him after the incident and the National Human Rights Commission’s (NHRC) recent instruction to the Delhi Police to take “appro-priate action” against him within eight weeks, but I think addressing the root causes of this kind of problem is the need of the hour.

BEING somebody who has been working on the refugees in Delhi, and African women in the Khirki Extension in particular, I can say that poverty is one of the major factors affecting their lives. The United Nations High Commi-ssioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is responsible for catering to the requirements of the refugees, but it has its own limitations as far as providing financial and others aids are concerned. Although the 1997 UNHCR Policy on Urban Refugees brings some kind of relief to these homeless people through a regular monthly subsistence allowance, its guidelines that “assistance to refugees should be given in a manner that encourages self-reliance and does not foster long-term dependency” makes many wonder about earning a livelihood which obviously is difficult because of varied constrains like language, lack of proper documentation, education, free movement, etc. In this country, both Foreigners Act 1946 and the Indian Citizenship Act in 2003 do not distinguish between refugees and their special circum-stances and are treated as foreigners. So, they often end up attending some self reliance programme organised by complementary partners of the UNHCR, earning around Rs 2000-3000 a month which isn’t enough for a healthy living.

So, many African women I interacted with, including some Ugandan, complained that their financial instability and the absence of proper support compels them to adjust with situations that are not very ethical leading them many a times to mental/psychological imbalance. The extent of the mental trauma they undergo could be understood from a statement given to me by an African woman during an interview about the suicidal death of her sister over living a stressful and undignified life. These homeless wanderers, who were bound to flee African countries like Somalia, Nigeria, Kenya, etc. because of the conflicts in these countries, are now stuck here, with many intending to settle down in the US with a hope of attaining citizenship. Despite such conditions, several women are putting their best efforts to live a dignified life but branding women of a particular community in an area as sex workers discredits the others. A Somali girl I recently interacted with over the Somnath Bharti issue expressed how many like her have been looked down upon by passers-by in Malviya Nagar following the incident because of their African looks, and some have even been asked to vacate their houses for no fault of theirs, though exceptions were also there.

Many single-women refugees, some even teenage girls, in Delhi lead insecure lives each day, including experiencing repeated knocks at their doors late at night by the male members, including locals. Some African women cried their heart out expressing the pain they felt when locals called them ‘habsis’ meaning man- eaters. While I think it’s wrong to hold everyone accountable for the possible misdeeds of some within the community, such incidents should be seen as a wakeup call for the government(s), international institutions and world leaders to address both pros and cons of the issue and settle down once for all to framing a proper mechanism, both acceptable and implementable by the concerned nations, and uphold with all sincerity the cause of mankind and humanity.

The author is a freelance journalist currently based in the North-East and has worked extensively on issues related to politics (both national and international), environment, and other development work with media organisation like ANI, Bag Films, Focus, TV, THL, Green Prospects Asia etc . She also highlights issues related to North-East India from time to time.

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