What about the stateless? Afghan refugees in India turning to self-harm to overcome lockdown woes

Sanika Athavale
Tuesday, 21 July 2020

The contagion that has arrested the normal pace of life has had a mask of ruthlessness on while dealing with certain sections of civil society. Seldom discussed, except when they were in the spotlight during the anti-CAA protests six months ago, Afghan refugees in India have been left feeling locked up, ignored, and put on a path to devastation in these grossly perplexing times.  

The contagion that has arrested the normal pace of life has had a mask of ruthlessness on while dealing with certain sections of civil society. Seldom discussed, except when they were in the spotlight during the anti-CAA protests six months ago, Afghan refugees in India have been left feeling locked up, ignored, and put on a path to devastation in these grossly perplexing times.  

“Afghan ka kaam, Afghan ke saath tha (Afghans only work with each other),” Nisar Ahmad Sherzai, an Afghan civil rights activist in India and ex-restauranter, said while elucidating on the reason behind the widespread unemployment in his community. He said that since the lockdown, the influx of new Afghan refugees and the movement of the existing ones has come to a full halt. This, he asserted, has led to the loss of income and livelihood, pushing many Afghans to try self-harm. 

While speaking to Sakal Times, he narrated the tale of a young adult from his community, whose deteriorating living conditions pushed him into taking his own life. As per a collective statement put out by the civil rights activists of their community, the 23-year-old is supposed to have ended his life over “mental anxiety caused by the UNHCR’s (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) indifference to his condition.”

The strength of the Afghan refugee community in India is reported to be 16,000. Currently, these people are struggling to cope with new levels of mental stress, compounded by the worldwide pandemic. Added to their memory of persecution in their homeland and continued experiences of discrimination in their country of asylum (India), the community’s collective anguish has not been spared from administrative apathy in these times of desperateness.

With zero access to healthcare services owing to their status as ‘stateless people’, the community is battling with fire. They are predominantly located in Delhi and as Sherzai claimed: “each one is registered with the offices of the UNHCR and FRRO (Foreign Regional Registration Officer).”

Even though living in India was never easy for this displaced group, the Indian government’s diplomatic friendliness with their country of origin, helped them survive with some hope. However, the most recent murmurs amongst them aren’t about their promise to a better life but of stories of attempted suicides by their people. Repeated COVID-19 lockdowns, lack of any healthcare provision or financial aid, administrative neglect, etc. has caused unprecedented levels of mental health issues amongst them. 

Speaking to Sakal Times on the condition of anonymity, a Delhi-based NGO helping refugees with legal representation informed that since the announcement of the nationwide lockdown on March 24 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the number of distress calls their helpline received almost quadrupled by June. “We used to receive up to 20 distress calls per month before March-end. Since then, the numbers doubled to 40 in May and reached the 80-mark by June,” the spokesperson said. 

One such refugee from Afghanistan, Maliha Rashidi, mother of eight, tried to kill herself over her inability to pay rent since the nationwide lockdown.

‘I could not have borne the sight of my dying children’”

For 40-year-old, Maliha, it has been a life filled with hardships. She fled Afghanistan after two of her brothers-in-law were killed, and her husband was kidnapped by the Taliban. For her escape, she sold her land in her village and procured flight tickets to India for her children, a surviving relative, and herself. 

 

 

“They cut off all the limbs of my husband’s brothers and abducted my husband later. Slowly, one by one, the members of my family were being killed by the warlords, and I feared that they might come for my children next,” she narrated her ordeal to us. 

She came to India in 2015 and registered as a ‘refugee’ with the UNHCR’s office in Delhi, to save what was left of her family. While she managed to feed her children through the years that passed since her arrival, the unexampled lockdown had rendered her completely without any hope. 

Just ten days before Delhi became a ghost town, she had shifted with her large family of eleven, into a three-room apartment in Delhi’s Malviya Nagar. The room was rented out to her by someone she described to be an ‘Indian Sardar’ for Rs 13,000 every month. 

But having lost all her engagements since March, she was in financial limbo, in her already-skimpy situation. She used to work as a medical interpreter for her fellow Afghans who had newly arrived in India for refuge and did not speak the local language. 

Well-versed with Hindi because of her inclination towards Bollywood since childhood, Maliha has used her ability to speak the language as her means of livelihood. “I used to earn around Rs 500 each day, and I have paid all my bills with that money. My eldest son had a stall where he sold ‘rotis’ and both our incomes put together, I ran my house,” she briefed. 

Unfortunately, with social distancing norms, a crackdown on local stalls, and a sharp reduction in people’s traffic, she lost her means of income, and all other avenues were out of reach for a ‘stateless’ person like her. 

Although she was unable to put pennies together for essential food items, her family managed to survive on the charity of others and debts by shopkeepers. Her landlord allowed the rental amount to get accumulated after every 30 days, for the next three months. Nevertheless, her growing awareness and anxiety about the approaching bankruptcy pushed her to want to end her life. “I could not have borne the sight of my dying children,” said stated grimly.

“The impending debts and my overdue rent pushed me to do what I did. I still do not know how I will repay my loans and pay my rent. Even if things normalise soon, I fear that the accrued amount will swell too much for me to bear,” she added.

Recounting the horror of her family when she had tried to put an end to her existence, she said that she had taken a ride away from her house to consume 15 Alprax tablets. Understandably, she fell unconscious and was taken to Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital by an acquaintance in the nick of time. Albeit, she was saved; she wished that “she had died that day.”

Her suicide attempt came at the time when the rest of India was discussing Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s unexpected death by suicide. Rumoured to have been facing ‘long-time professional and financial troubles’ it was initially reported that the young star took his life over the same. His demise sparked off the much-need conversation around sensitivity towards mental health and destigmatising therapy. But for people like Maliha who have found themselves in a country without any refugee policies and laws, accessing professional help to address mental health issues and suicidal tendencies is a far-fetched fantasy.

Govt. does not give documents, pre-existent issues have aggravated

“There is no law nor policy to manage refugees in India and the country is also not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention drafted by the UNHCR. Therefore, no refugee has a clear legal status here and no government documentation. Without this, it becomes difficult for them to obtain basic services such as housing and access to public utilities. Since the lockdown, their pre-existent issues have aggravated,” the Delhi-based legal service NGO clarified.

Elaborating further on the problems faced by Afghan refugees due to lack of documentation, Anushka Tiwari, an M.Phil research scholar and social anthropologist said, “Some of the young ones manage to get college-educated but do not know what to do with their qualifications as they cannot be hired in any registered company in the organised sector.” 

Thus, in any way, since they are unable to get jobs in the regularised industries, a lot of young Afghans choose work in unorganised sectors alongside their older counterparts who mostly do not have any formal education. However, this ‘job loss phenomenon’ set off by the COVID-19 lockdown has affected this community very severely along with other Indian labourers and slum-dwellers. 

Farishta’s son tried to jump off the top floor

Like Maliha, another Afghan woman refugee named Farishta has been living in Delhi since 2015. She also lost her source of income to the lockdown, which she would earn from doing miscellaneous translation work. “I can speak Hindi, Pashto, Persian, and a little bit of English and Punjabi,” said Farishta. 

In saner times, she would accompany Afghans to the places of Indian vendors, doctors, and administrators for interpreting messages. Apart from this, she would manage to do sundry jobs of housekeeping and cooking for Indian families to make ends meet. But, ever since the lockdown, she lost her means of sustenance and believes that her condition is “worse than that of a dead human being.” In addition to her woes, her son had recently tried to kill himself - an attempt she had managed to prevent. 

“A twenty-something,” she said, “he has been very disturbed by his family’s condition and his personal trauma. He used to work as a ‘tarjuman’ (translator) in Gurugram but returned to Delhi six months ago after a gang of Indians and Afghans tried to attack him viciously.”

With no work to do and no money for dignified living, unbeknown to her, the young man was harbouring ideas of self-harm from a long time. He tried to jump from the top floor of their building last month, but Farishta was able to save his life. 

She asserts that her son’s mental health condition worsened after the lockdown cost him his job. 

Lockdown has been a killer for many

Women like Maliha and Farishta, while detailing their respective financial situations and mental health problems, also made verbal mentions about other cases of attempted suicide and death by suicide in their Afghan-refugee circles.

“Such extremities are being widely adopted by my people as they are losing their minds trying to make sense of the changes around them,” said Maliha.

The lockdown and the current COVID-19 situation has led to insecurities and fear among all categories of people. For some, domestic fights have become catalysts, but for the most part, people who have been pushed into new levels of poverty are unable to deal with the mental strain it has caused.

Caught in the same net of monetary deprivations, a tribal Indian woman named Mangala Dileep Wagh from the Palghar district in Maharashtra, strangled her three-year-old child with her saree and hung herself from a tree near her residence last month. The Palghar police have said that the woman’s husband was a manual labourer who had lost his source of income after the lockdown was announced. 

Even on the front of the farmers’ welfare, the lockdown period has not been kind. As many as 256 farmers died by suicide between March and April according to a report compiled by The Times Of India. Although the number of farmer suicides from the beginning of 2020 up to now have been lesser in comparison to the previous years’ numbers, experts state even 200 suicides in two months despite no adverse weather change and a good yield, is very alarming.

Sadly, the cases of suicide and suicidal tendencies in refugee-groups, along with farmers and other people of weak socio-economic backgrounds remain under-discussed or neglected in public addresses or press briefings by governing leaders at the central and state levels. 

A study compiled by a group of researchers including public interest technologist Thejesh GN and activist Kanika Sharma, assistant professor of legal practice (Jindal Global School of Law) Aman, said that over 300 deaths have occurred due to high levels of distress triggered by the COVID-19 lockdown. ‘Suicide’ has been singled out as the leading cause of death in the study publicised in May by the group of researchers. 

Working with the Human Rights Law Network, Fazal Abdali, an advocate, said that he had observed a change in the pattern of cases he dealt with since the lockdown. Underlying mental health issues and trauma-related problems are increasing in the refugees living in India as per his observations. “They have long dark histories of persecution, and the thought of suicide comes very easily to them,” he said. 

“Since India has no laws to govern the condition of refugees, the country is used as a transit point until the refugees completely resettle to another place that accepts and welcomes them,” he explained. 

Our sources also told us that many refugees have been evicted from their rented homes. Children from these families, with limited or negligible access to technology, have been forced to drop out of school as they cannot join online classes like others. 

Moreover, without the proper knowledge of the local language or English, some refugees don’t even know enough about the virus that has upturned their world. Free testing facilities, administrative quarantine centres, Centre’s relief packages are beyond their reach in the absence of identification papers. 

Deeply troubled at present by every mean possible and haunted by the ghosts of their past, suicide figures like a solution for this ignored group. Even the UNHCR warned that many asylum-seekers and refugees worldwide are resorting to self-harm as a way to end their internalised pain. 

We tried to get into touch with the offices of UNHCR and NHRC for a response on the statements made by the refugees in the article. Even after repeated attempts, we received no response. The article will be updated if our queries are answered.

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