It is almost winter.

In Vasant Vihar, a posh colony in South Delhi, the new multi-storeyed apartments are decked in fairy lights. There are no old fashioned lamps. The families are preparing for Diwali and their homes are filled with boxes of sweets and anticipation of celebration. The puja corners have new idols.

Down one leafy, quiet lane of the colony is a B2/16 a large house but we cannot see it because the gates are shut tightly. There are barriers around the building and security men standing more alert than the occasional guards outside the apartments.

Below the barriers are a few tiny tents pitched in a row. These are refugees, who have been protesting here for several weeks. They were not always inside tents. Some weeks ago, they had slept in the open. When it rained, they had taken shelter in the nearby market. Then someone – they did not know the lady’s name – had given them these tents.

After a month, the refugees attracted some media attention. In The Times of India, for instance, a report by Priyangi Agarwal offered snapshot portraits of each of the protestors and highlighted their demand for resettlement.

But the refugees did not get to talk to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They said that they do not have access to anyone within the office. Sometimes they are able to talk to the refugees working within the office but “how can refugee help a refugee?”

Some of the residents of Vasant Vihar did bring them food but the refugees said the security guards did not allow them to give it to them. However, when my husband and I went with food, they allowed us to give them the food and water. That is when we invited the refugees to our home.

They said food was not the problem. It was the total insecurity.

By the end of July, the UNHCR in India had registered a total of 42, 882 refugees and asylum-seekers. Of them, 15,402 were from Afghanistan and 23,478 from Myanmar.

The refugees we spoke to, many from Somalia, Congo, Sudan and Myanmar, all said they had chosen to come to India rather than go to Europe because they thought India would welcome them and they would be better off. But here they had no rights at all.

The refugees cannot legally work, have access to educational institutions or open a bank account. Even if they are recognised by the UNHCR, their refugee card gives them no protection from criminals or the intimidation from the police.

Two Iraqi refugees said that though they were recognised refugees within the mandate of the UNHCR but that did not give them protection. They showed us videos that they claimed were of an Afghan refugee being beaten by the police outside the UNHCR office. The Afghan’s hands were bleeding. An Iraqi refugee, Mahdi, claimed that the police were careful to beat outside the range of the CCTV.

One woman from Africa said that her daughter had been raped, she had no security. Another woman said they faced racism every day; “We are called kaala and when we go to buy vegetables they double the price. We are refugees, how can we pay?”

For the refugees in India, the entire country seems to be a prison.


On November 2, Mohammad, an Iraqi refugee phoned me to say the police had come and arrested his brother and asked if we could come. He sent us videos of the day’s events. African refugees had come, mostly women and children. Mehdi, an Iraqi refugee was sitting with little African children, infants really and playing a drum.

Then the children walked away when they saw the police trying to arrest the refugees. The refugees said they were angry because no one in UNHCR was willing to speak to them.

Bruce, a refugee from Congo and a leader of the group, said in the past the UNHCR had been much more approachable. But now they did not answer his calls.

I can confirm his allegation. When I first went to UNHCR in 1990, it seemed liked a safe harbour. Refugees would be in and out of the office and as a lawyer representing them I felt welcome. But over the years it had become very bureaucratic.


A refugee from Myanmar who has been in India since 1990 said that in 2017 the Foreigners Regional Registration Officer had stopped issuing residential permits and long-term visas to them. As a result, the refugees could not apply for Aadhaar cards, get driving licenses or work. This meant that that the refugees had to earn a living by illegal means.

A UNHCR report admits that there “were critical gaps in 2020, with over one third of the needs of people of concern being unmet by the available budget. Only 2,840 of 9,000 refugees and asylum-seekers with specific needs could be supported with cash assistance, leaving many with inadequate support.”

The report also admits that “only 20% of eligible children, due to insufficient funding, and women and girls did not benefit from distribution of sanitary napkins according to the level of needs”.

I know one Chin refugee who is worried how he will cover the hospital expenses when his wife delivers their baby. He said the UNHCR used to send an interpreter with refugees who needed medical attention but now they do not. The hospital that is on the UNHCR list in Delhi’s Vikaspuri does not have a good reputation among the refugees. The Myanmar refugees said they were treated very badly there.

How could anyone blame the refugees for being angry?

That evening, the refugees vented their anger and some threw a few stones. Someone inside the UNHCR office called the police. This made the refugees even angrier. The police hit some. Bruce was hurt and so were several others. Then the police tried to take the refugees into their van.

They took two women, one Afghan woman and an African. And they picked up Mehdi and his fellow Iraqi, Mohammad. But the African women pulled out Mohammad and screamed, “He is our brother”. Mohammad said he had never seen such strong women.

The refugees refused to leave till the three were returned. Finally, the police asked Sebastian, my husband, to intervene and managed to get the UNHCR to open the gates. A senior police official there said that since the UNHCR had called in the police, they had to take action. The UNHCR representative said he had no authority to say anything. But he would ask his bosses on Monday.


The refugee is a product of the most barbaric aspects of humanity: of wars, of torture and of deadly conflicts. The fact the refugee keeps alive his or her hope in the dire situations is a symbol of resilience of human beings.

The fight for rights of refugees is really a way of preserving Indian democracy. Looking at India through the eyes of these refugees, we can see how racist and how inhuman we have become. Why does my country seem like a prison to the refugees who chose to come here because they had heard India was the biggest democracy of all?

Once again it is clear that India must enact some law to protect refugees. The human rights movement in India has never really taken up the rights of refugees. Till India has a law, the UNHCR has to find a way to protect the refugees and become a safe harbour for them instead of a bureaucratic machine without heart and soul.

Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.