New Delhi: On September 23, 2021, Samah Ameen (40), her husband and three children arrived in India after fleeing the Yemen civil war with the hope of a better future. But more than a year later, they continue to struggle as they haven’t been recognised as refugees in India.
The conflict in Yemen, which began in 2014, is between the internationally recognised government, which is backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, and Houthi rebels supported by Iran. It has resulted in a humanitarian crisis that has left around 23.7 million people in need of assistance, including almost 13 million children, according to UNICEF. At the end of 2021, the UN estimated that 377,000 people were killed as a result of the conflict, through indirect and direct causes.
The absence of a refugee law in India, the presence of complicated bureaucratic processes and a lack of clarity on refugee policy leave several families like Ameen’s helpless in a foreign land without any resources or support.
‘No government assistance, no place to go’
Ameen came to India with her husband Nedhal Mostadfa, and children Emad, Mazen and five-year-old Leen. They were fleeing Houthi rebels in her hometown of Sanaa.
The family lived in a rented house from October 2021 to August 2022 while trying to seek asylum in India. However, in September, they were asked to leave because they could not pay rent. Since then, they have been staying in a tent outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office.
“We have spent close to 40 days camping outside the UNHCR office, with no government assistance and no place to go. Moreover, an attempt was made to remove the tent where we’re living,” Ameen told The Wire.
The family alleged that they were assaulted by the Delhi Police and the UNHCR’s security guards in Vasant Vihar on September 27.
“An attempt was made to remove us from the area,” she alleged.
“When we told them that this is the only place we have, the female police personnel started assaulting me and removed my hijab (headscarf). When my husband intervened, he was beaten up and kept in detention for close to two days. He still suffers from chest pains. When my son tried to help, he was attacked too,” she said.
Several other attempts were allegedly made to remove the family from outside the UNHCR office.
Ameen further alleged that the organisation had even asked her husband to start looking for a house, indicating that the family is on their own.
“Without a job, we are very anxious about supporting ourselves. We are just dependent on any help that comes our way,” she said.
Last year, as soon as they reached India, they applied for asylum with the UNHCR. However, they were given only a blue card that indicates they have applied for asylum in this country.
“No other interview happened and the card which was supposed to be given to us to recognise us as asylum seekers never came,” she said.
Struggle to leave Yemen
Describing the struggle to leave Yemen amid the crisis, Ameen says, “It took us two days to move from the northern to the southern region of Aiden crossing several checkpoints, with the men in my family disguised as women to avoid the militia. We reached Egypt and thereafter made the journey to find refuge in India.”
She chose to come to India for two reasons: security, and medical treatment for her son who suffers from glaucoma (an eye condition that causes blindness) and requires immediate assistance.
“Our child Mazen Nedhal, who is 12 years old, suffers from congenital glaucoma. We needed to flee Yemen to protect ourselves and seek medical treatment [for Mazen]. He has almost lost vision in his right eye, and the vision in his left eye is also affected. He is going blind,” she said.
India’s refugee policy
In April this year, the UNHCR issued them an asylum seeker certificate.
However, without an identity card that recognises them as “refugees” and the requisite language skills, protection and financial independence remain a far-fetched dream for the family.
Due to a lack of clarity on India’s refugee policy, families such as Ameen’s are treated as “economic migrants” until they get a long-term visa.
According to experts, there is no substantive law in India as far as a refugee policy is concerned because India is not a party to the refugee convention. However, the Union home ministry issues a long-term visa to those who claim to be refugees.
Advocate Dilwar Hussain, who works with asylum seekers in India, explained how this process works.
“When someone registers with the UNHCR in India, after the first interview they are provided with the asylum seeker certificate. And after following the due procedure and verification, if their case is found to be genuine, they are provided with refugee status,” he added.
Experts also pointed out that due to the lack of recognition of the blue paper, asylum seekers are often faced with detentions, harassment and violence. Even if one is given a card, they still have to fight an uphill battle as far as arranging for resources is concerned.
Speaking to The Wire, lawyer Fazal Abdali said, “The [refugee] policy is evolving. Any person who claims to be a refugee will get a long-term visa after due scrutiny.”
According to the policy, if someone claims they had to flee persecution, their case will be scrutinised, and then, they will be issued a long-term visa.
“However, things transpire differently in reality, there was a delay in issuing of the refugee cards amid and even after the COVID-19 crisis,” he added.
The Wire reached out to the UNHCR seeking a response to Ameen’s case and the status of her family’s application. However, the organisation said that “for protection and confidentiality reasons, the UNHCR is not in a position to comment on the details of individual cases.”
Another query was sent to the organisation seeking a response on the arrangements it has made for asylum seekers, the number of applications pending, and its policy towards such cases. However, the organisation didn’t respond to these queries.
The family’s primary concern is to be able to survive in India as refugees and seek protection, accommodation, and safety.
Currently, UNHCR has provided a temporary residence to them on the outskirts of Delhi’s Wazirabad. However, the organisation is helping them with only one month’s rent.
Meanwhile, they are also in the process of getting emergency medical care from Delhi-based AIIMS for their son as the condition of his eyes continues to worsen.
With inputs from Mallory Moench.