Afghan Refugees in India: Key Challenges

Author:   Anushka

Afghan Refugees in India: Key Challenges


Anushka, M.Phil. Student, National Institute of Education Planning and Administration, Email: [email protected]


This is the revised version of the paper published in the Roots and Routes, January-June 2019.



Since last one decade the world is experiencing a new wave of refugee crisis. The UNHCR (2019) put the figure as whopping 70.8 million people around the world are displaced from their homes and out of which a significant nearly 25.9 million are refugees and over half of whom are under the age of 18. This is nothing short of a large scale human crisis that is pervading almost all continents of the world.  

 According to a UN Refugee Agency, more than 200,000 refugees were living in India in 2014(UNHCR). People have come from around the world that includes Tibet, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Eritrea, Iran and Iraq. Rohingya and Afghan refugees constitute of the largest refugee group in India followed by a smaller number from the Middle East and Africa mostly residing in urban areas (UNHCR: 2019). There are around 18,000 refugees in Delhi by 2009 which might have increased by now constituting Afghans, Burmese and Tibetans (Sharma, M: 2009). As in 2016, UNHCR recorded registration of 14,464 refugees in India and total assisted were 7,693. Earlier in the year 2017, liberalisation of visa measures was announced for Afghan nationals who have led to an increase in Afghan refugee women, who have further low access to the higher education.

Sharma, Maina (2009) states that there are about 10,000 Afghan refugees in Delhi, ninety percent of whom belong to Hindu or Sikh faiths that are religious minorities of Afghanistan, the rest ten percent belong to Hazaras, Pashtun and other communities. There were mainly two times in the course of history when the Afghans felt the need to flee from their motherland, once in 1979 during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which followed infighting and poverty with the withdrawal of soviet forces from Afghanistan and the other during the fall of Najibullah regime, which embarked upon the advent of Taliban onto the political setup, destroying lives of common people sparing none. Since then, thousands have made Delhi as their temporary home. However, the journey from Afghanistan and their stay in India has not been totally devoid of miseries and problems. The hardships faced not only constitute the language problem but also the economic, social and problems of integration into the Indian culture.

Migrants and refugees are two different terminologies and have subsequently gone through same exposure by society. As Ghosh, P. S. (2016) has tried to explain as soon as the initial sympathy for refugees and migrants dries up in the host society, nativist suspicions about their continued presence start surfacing. Each South Asian state has been grappling with this problem, though an unsuspecting analyst may overlook it. Whether they are Punjabi Hindu/Sikh refugees in Delhi, Bengali scheduled caste refugees in West Bengal, Muhajirin in Sindh, Punjabi Muslim refugees in Pakistan’s Punjab, Pashtoon refugees in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, Bihari Muslims or Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, they all have provided fodder to the local and national politics of these states in terms of ethnic, linguistic and sectarian divides. Even religious militancy in these countries has a complex link with these processes. Following the transfer of enclaves between India and Bangladesh, the political parties of both the states are active in these areas to influence the so-called ‘new citizens’.  This paper tries to identify some of the key challenges faced by Afghan refugee in India and strategies to address those issues.


(a) Assimilation  

India is home to almost 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan who have fled the war-torn country in search of safety and a better life. In spite of the struggles that come with abandoning their lives and homes, most seem to have assimilated well, finding small jobs or even opening businesses of their own. A passion for Afghan cuisine has come to the rescue of male refugees in New Delhi, too. Unlike refugees from other countries, Afghans have blended well with .the locals, adding a new flavour to the local Indian culture. Thousands of people come from Afghanistan every year to benefit from the high quality but relatively cheap health care. They tend to stay in rented accommodation near the hospital, and they tend to eat in the Afghan restaurants in the area. Manthu, dumplings filled with meat and onion, steamed and served with split pea sauce and garlic yoghurt, have become favourites among the Indian patrons. Kabuli pilaf rice, cooked with meat, vegetables, nuts and spices, also appeals to the Indian and Afghan palates alike. For most of the Afghan refugees here, the ultimate goal is to resettle in the U.S. or Europe, where they believe there are even greater opportunities. But Europe is already closing its doors on the flood of Syrian refugees, so the people of Little Kabul may have a long time to wait.


(b) Livelihood Challenges

UNHCR (2011) observed that “when refugees have access to land, the labour market and livelihood opportunities and enjoy freedom of movement, they can have positive economic impacts by creating jobs, services and facilities, or by contributing to agricultural production and the local economy”. This is the case of Canada where refugees have higher rates of employment, higher incomes and pay more taxes compared to other immigrant groups. Betts, A (2014) has argued that refugees can be economic assets; many are networked within settlements — nationally and transnationally — and, in many cases, use or create technology at higher rates than the local population through internet and mobile phone usage. Under more open policies, refugees can be an economic benefit to their host communities in long term for instance: The Afghan migration to India was firstly more of a terrorised transformation to experiencing a comparative liberal and secular country led them to pacify and stand on their own. This all led to development of their own market hub in Lajpat Nagar in Delhi which when visited by natives of area gives a different cultural experience of diversity. The whole of different cultural experience may be a cultural shock to the host and the refugee but a calm and slow assimilation is making them self reliant in a respectable way and a hope to government for a promising growth and development filled future.

 As quoted above the example of Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar is just one case, the other ways of assimilation is education too which makes the outsider (refugee) and the host to come together and make them understand each other’s horizons and perspectives. Through certain exchanges of dialogues and living with each other makes both the parties aware of each other of the demands and supply which when demanded by one is generated by the other. Generally, refugees are already in fear of not being accepted by the host but are willing to surrender services in order to survive and sometimes have money but no experience to bargain and survive. All in all they are they do bring skills- which are of universal in nature worldwide and buying power. These two features are of promising basis of an asset to labour market majorly constituted in informal sector market. Through gradual process their transgression of living standards deteriorates in case not made aware of their rights.

The other model of their sustenance is technology. The very basic is transboundary access to all the entertainment channels which make them realise of barbaric attitudes inflicted upon them and the very basic human standards they deserve and should demand. India has guaranteed the very basic Right to Life i.e. Article 21 to each and every “homo sapiens sapiens” plus the extra- dignity, employment, liberty but all this is put under check if their access to such basics exceeds the limitations of this nation i.e. the very fundamental attitude of Secularism. If it tries to manipulate and forcibly change someone’s faith, belief and religion India is intolerant towards it. Social cohesion, demonstrates how protracted situations and policies that foster integration can positively or negatively affect social cohesion: when refugees are given greater access to their rights and are better able to integrate, social cohesion is greater within the community. The very television has given the other countries the idea that how India is functioning as a core nation irrespective of Political parties. The evolving nature of India from the perspective of westernisation of thoughts, outlook and progress is promising to the people who are seeking peace but again it is not that easy to have an easier access to enter India as it has been in Pakistan and Iran in the past. YouTube, Movies, Ekta Kapoor serials has made them aware of the “grass being greener on the other side”, but to experience it is a different ballgame altogether.

  The other mode of attraction to the livelihood is Mobile phones, E-mails, Facebook, Whatsapp and other social media apps which have kept them aware and updated with latest news and information. Mobile Phones have really brought different countries as one world together. Once one gets outside of their homelands and gets assimilated and settled into the alien country in starting they start influencing others decisions as well. India’s language itself most spoken is English and Hindi may face problems in starting with the people speaking only Dari and Pashto. But as Darwin has quoted “survival of the fittest” make all the ones assimilating learn the basic Hindi which helps them in Transacting for daily activities and so does the people around become sensitive and try to converse in a language which can be a common medium of conversation.

Refugees do not pose much of a security risk than the general population. While each situation is different, refugees are no more likely to be involved in crime than the general population. Jacobsen (2002) has discussed that the presence of refugee and “pursuit of livelihoods can increase human security because economic activities help to recreate social and economic interdependence within and between communities”. Refugees and host communities can gain through inclusive policies, leading to less aid dependence and more resiliencies. Social impacts are also highly contextual: the effects of refugees staying with family members in a host country, versus those in a camp or settlement for decades, might present very different social outcomes for displaced persons and hosts. Policies that avoid encampments or such can provide greater opportunities for refugees to inter- mingle and intra-mingle with the native communities and easily establish networks professionally and personally. They establish a rapport between both native and refugees to build a conducive environment to live in harmony. Policy wise we need to come up with a new framework which is accommodative and experimenting in order to form a new way of living among the people. There is a need of research and updated data which can create better informed policy on the issue of hosting and inhabiting refugees. Presently the governments of all the host countries including India are under pressure to maintain security and stability. Simultaneously there are jobs to process, manage and secure refugee areas which becomes a haven for them to grow internally (refugees) while maintaining relations, connectivity and peace with intra-communities (host and refugees).

(c) Skill and Education

Skill set is an important aspect of a refugee dynamics as one migrates in to a country but having no access to resources after a point of time makes them a burden on a residing economy. Generally it is not the case as refugees do bring a skill or two with them which helps them to be a self reliant and functioning pack. Refugees tend to have purchasing power with an added advantage of generating employment for others migrating from their own place. For example: restaurant owners at Lajpat Nagar in Delhi are definitely generating revenue with an added advantage of absorbing other migrants who can cook or work other chores of a restaurant. This type of economic activity brings an opportunity of assimilation of the new refugees into the security of the known ones and trying to spread off the culture among the unknowns. As the afghan cuisine is becoming popular among the Delhi people it is making culturally aware, sensitive and accepting of the new ones trying to squeeze into the population of the permanent ones. This type of acceptance and absorption of cultures through skills have been an unending process in India and specifically with respect to Afghanistan. The best example of acceptance and then culturally assimilating is Multani Punjabis who had become wealthily rich and were willing to exchange daughters with the same stature people bringing them in close proximity with Punjabi community, and this further community is further assimilating with other prospective people making the nation culturally diverse.    

The other facet of skill and education is skill set of a refugee or a migrant’s awareness of host country’s language which is first tested by the language of the host country. Skill in a host Country’s native language helps in assimilation. The best example is Canada’s Proficiency exam for English or French which helps refugees or migrants an opportunity to learn a new language (an added advantage) and if they attain a good score it’ll help them in seeking jobs and social integration as well. A refugee is in a need of knowing a language, pragmatic knowledge and opportunist in terms seeking job.

Schnepf, S. V. (2007) has tried to explain the relationship between education and skills and how it is unfolding in the present terrorised world. the study was conducted on the differences in educational achievements between refugees and natives of host country across ten OECD countries. The research conducted had found in English speaking countries, immigrants or refugees fared best, while in Continental European countries they fare worse compared to natives. While language did play an important role in making them at a disadvantaged position it was further aggravated by other important determinants i.e. socio- economic background and school segregation.  


UNHCR (2019) on the basis of a comprehensive protection risk analysis and in line with a whole of community approach, UNHCR has developed a partnership strategy identifying key thematic areas that will generate protection outcomes and foster solutions. Four key thematic areas for these initiatives are: (a) access to adequate housing; (b) access to education; (c) support to peace building; and (d) support to self-reliance and sustainable reintegration through regional initiatives. In its partnership approach, UNHCR also increases outreach with persons of concern through a comprehensive area based approach. Engagement with development actors is auctioned through a rights based approach as aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and supported by the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, to which Afghanistan announced its formal commitment in July 2018. Together these efforts reinforce the centrality of protection and enhance protection advocacy, and UNHCR will continue to strengthen partnership to expand humanitarian access. Community empowerment will continue to be supported and fostered through increased participation, communication with communities, feedback and complaints mechanisms, and enhanced transparency.

It is the time to rethink about refugee is a serious human crisis. Nation states can proactively play positive role in managing the situation for the betterment of humanity through cooperation, dialogue and developmental orienation. Inablity to do so will only worsen the situation.

I wish to conclude with a quote from Mohsin Hamid’s article that appeared in National Geographic magazine “in the 21st century, we are all migrants”. Humans are in motion across time as well as geography. Why must we be divided, the migrant versus the native? We need a human approach to manage the human migration to create a wonderful place on earth.




Betts, A., Bloom, L., Kaplan, J. D., & Omata, N. (2014). Refugee economies: Rethinking popular assumptions (pp. 1-44). University of Oxford, Refugee Studies Centre.

Ghosh, P. S. (2016). Migrants, refugees and the stateless in South Asia,  New Delhi: Sage

Hamid, Mohsin (2019) In the 21st century, we are all migrants, (Accessed on  August 2019)


Jacobsen, K. (2002). Livelihoods in conflict: the pursuit of livelihoods by refugees and the impact on the human security of host communities. International migration40(5), 95-123.

Sharma, M (2009) Refugees in Delhi. Working Paper No. 229, Centre for Civil Society, India.

Schnepf, S. V. (2007). Immigrants’ educational disadvantage: an examination across ten countries and three surveys. Journal of population economics20(3), 527-545.

UNESCO Institute for Statistics,.2011 Global Education Digest 2011: Comparing Education Statistics Across the World. UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Montreal.

UNHCR (2018) Statistical Year book, Figures at a Glance, The UN Refugee Agancy,, Accessed on 12 May 2019.

UNHCR. (2017). Population Statistics, Available at:, Accessed on 12 April 2019.

UNHCR. (2019). Afghanistan Multi-Year Protection and Solutions Strategy, 2019-2021,

UNHCR. 2011. The Role of Host Countries: The Cost and Impact of Hosting Refugees,, Accessed on 17 June 2019.


UNHCR (2019), Accessed on 25 May 2019, Accessed on 25 May 2019, Accessed on 22 May 2019., Accessed on 25 May 2019


© 2012-20 GRFDT, All Rights Reserved.Maintained by GRFDT.Designed by Abhinav Jain