NOUMAAN ANWER & CHIRAG BASU | 2 JUNE, 2019
Nationless in India
Families fleeing persecution find an uncertain home
NEW DELHI: Nargis and Zabiullah Rahimi arrived in the Indian capital in March 2014. At that point, it had already been over a decade that they last met their oldest child, Ali, who lives with his uncle and grandmother in the United Kingdom.
The Rahimis had encountered violent threats as part of a familial dispute in 2002. Fleeing Kabul for London, Nargis and Zabiullah were debarred at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, while Ali and Nargis’s brother and mother were allowed to go through.
The couple, and later their two younger children lived in distressing uncertainty until a second wave of threats, this time from supposed Taliban operatives resentful of Zabiullah’s father’s work as a typist in the Afghan government, forced the family to flee eastwards to India, in hopes of receiving international refugee status and protection from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in New Delhi. They hoped this would allow them passage to England, to be reunited with their eldest son.
Here are the grounds you must satisfy in order to be granted international refugee status. According to Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Refugee Convention and Article 1(2) of the 1967 Refugee Protocol, a refugee is someone who is “outside the country of nationality (or even country of habitual residence) due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on one or more of five grounds, namely—religion, race, nationality, or membership of a political, or social group.”
These two documents form the cornerstone of international refugee law, and outline the duties and responsibilities of states to refugees. For refugees the litmus test is to prove a threat of persecution, but this is easier said than done. The term ‘persecution’ is nowhere defined, giving officials and even nonprofits great discretion over whether to designate someone as a refugee.
In the Rahimis’ case, crucial documentation required by the family was denied to them, initially from apparent mismanagement, as the case seemed to have been confused with another claim, and later upon a denial of the claims made by Nargis in her painstaking reapplication. This process consumed almost two years of their lives, from 2014 to 2016, crucial years for young Iqbal and Muskan Rahimi, who are now 15 and 13 years old.
With frustration and dejection reaching a peak mid-2016, the Rahimis were forced to consider desperate measures. A suspicious individual named Bakhtiawar (now deceased) was referred to them by an acquaintance in their neighbourhood, Jangpura, on the pretext that he was adept at moving people across national borders, to any destination, using dubious means.
In typical fashion for a tout, the entire operation was shrouded in vagueness – Kolkata’s Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International airport was eventually to serve as their point of exit. Rather questionably handing over two sets of four counterfeit passports each – one Israeli and one South African – to the unsuspecting and underinformed family, Bakhtiawar left the Rahimis to their own disposal, with barely any instructions.
“Hum simple log hain. Humein aise bure kaam ke baare meh zyaada kuchh nahi pataa,” Nargis told The Citizen. (We’re simple people. We know very little about these shady activities.)
Using the set of Israeli passports, Nargis, Zabiullah and their two young children departed Kolkata on the morning of 4 September 2016. Intending to fly to London via Kathmandu, the family were detained in the capital of the mountainous nation, when they attempted to use their unstamped South African passports while transferring to their UK-bound aircraft. The Rahimis were essentially strangers to international air travel, and more importantly, they were simply following what little instruction they had received.
Without knowing it, the Rahimis were committing activities designated illegal by the laws of India. Unfortunately, in their desperation to flee to England, they placed themselves on the wrong side of Section 12(1A)(b) of the Indian Passport Act. This provision punishes holding a forged passport or travel document with a prison term of one to five years, as well as a fine between ten and fifty thousand rupees.
From Kathmandu the family were deported back to Kolkata, where they were arrested on these charges, and were eventually detained separately. What followed were three months of unspeakable torture.
According to the couple’s claims, as well as a petition they filed in the Calcutta High Court, Iqbal faced inhumane sexual and mental abuse, as well as physical retribution for attempting to resist this abuse, from fellow detainees at a well known juvenile detention centre, where he was held while his parents desperately tried to attain bail.
Both children were also exposed to unhygienic environments, which caused sharp declines in their physical health – all of this in government-mandated juvenile care.
Nargis Rahimi says she was also forced to ward off inappropriate advances from intoxicated police officers while she was in custody inside Dum Dum Jail, and was even offered a route out through bribery, which she rejected not just on account of the extremely inflated price.
The couple only saw their children once between September and early December, when they were finally released.
Moving back to Delhi in late 2016, the family have since tried to adapt to their lives as ‘aliens’, in a country where they scarcely understand the language. Settled again in Jangpura, they have little option but to accept the dreary stagnancy of their lives.
In yet another indictment of the Indian legal system, more than two years have passed since the Rahimis were first detained. The police have only recently framed charges. Meanwhile, the family have had to shell out six-digit legal fees, and are slowly coming to accept that their hopes of gaining refugee status, and living together as a reunited family, have all but crumbled.
Nargis remains optimistic, and plans to submit a third refugee protection claim to the UNHCR, this time with formal legal assistance. She hopes this will let them finally shift to the United Kingdom and meet their son Ali.
Zabiullah says he worries more than his wife does. Now working at a pharmacy, and doubling as a freelance interpreter from Pashtun or Dahri, to English or Hindi, he told The Citizen he hopes he’s never forced to return to Afghanistan – in October last year there was an attack on his father and younger brother, he tells us, by people associated with the Taliban.
All he desires at this point is to reunite his family, a dream that fades ever deeper into mirth, with every passing month.
Nargis, who works as a receptionist at a dermatology clinic, sounds more hopeful. At least both her children are going to school. Between them the couple manage to earn just enough to pay off their bills and rent, but they continue to deal with the indescribable scars this series of events inflicted on their lives.
Iqbal remains reclusive and aloof, saying little even to his parents over the course of each day.
His father believes Iqbal hasn’t recovered from what he went through in Kolkata, and is highly discomfited at the mere mention of the city’s name.
The deep-seated implications of India’s failure to formulate a concrete refugee policy, or even live up to its existing international commitments to refugees, only catch the popular imagination on spectacular occasions – such as the crisis of Rohingya refugees over the past few years.
India allocates the responsibility of processing refugee status claims to the UNHCR, but then steps in at a later point in the process, making the final adjudication as to whether the UN agency’s decision is to be accepted as legitimate.
Such being the case, the Rahimis are unlikely ever to be granted recognition as legal refugees, even if the UNHCR were to accept their claim. Nor do their legal struggles show signs of abating any time soon.
As the news shifts away from the frenzies of election season, few seem to realise that major gaps in our democracy’s policy framework are harming people who reside in our very midst. The Rahimis are not alone. Their story is a jarring example of the reality that thousands of people in India face today.
Bigwigs in parliamentary circles treat these delicate faultlines like the dirt beneath their feet. Asylum law is seldom granted even passing importance, and even when it is, the debate is made to veer in the same absurd direction as everything else in this our “nation”. Whether or not to exclude certain groups, on the basis of their this or that assigned communal identity.