Article Movement & Migration

Desperate lives of New Delhi's Afghan refugees

After fleeing bombs and the Taliban, Afghan migrants discover life is harsh in different ways across the border in India

Noor Amir, a 50-year-old Afghan national, was recently found lying unconscious on the roads of New Delhi, India’s capital. The police officer, who took Amir to the nearest hospital, was surprised and shocked when the doctors told him Amir had 95 capsules of heroin, worth around £300,000, lying in his stomach.

After treatment, Amir was arrested on drug peddling charges. Local media often report incidents of Afghanis involved in drug peddling rackets and there appears to be a trend in the offing.

“In the past a similar case was reported where an Afghan national had died of a drug overdose after one capsule had burst inside his stomach. It was only during the post-mortem that the capsules were recovered from his body,” a senior police officer told national daily Hindustan Times.

Amir, like many of the Afghan refugees was living in South Delhi’s Lajpath Nagar neighbourhood, once known for Pakistani refugees who crossed the border during the Partition.

In an interview with another local daily, Amir, who has two wives and is a father of five children, said that he did it for his family. He had been promised £700 to traffic the drug by the peddlers.

India today is full of Afghanis who have migrated from their troubled nation. The neighbourhood looks very friendly to the migrants; restaurants serve Afghan cuisine and signboards in Pashto (the native language in Afghanistan) are a common sight. Almost every second shop has a signboard in Pashto.

The reality, however, is different from what it is seen on the surface. The locals charge them higher rents, sometimes double the market rate, and may even make them leave their apartments, often in less than a year, which is the ideal contract period. Some Afghanis complain that locals often mistreat them.

“These are trivial issues. The real issue is job for us. We don’t have work permits so it is difficult for us to get a decent job and maintain a decent standard of living,” Fuwad says, when I meet him in a cafe. His handsome and young oval face was looking a little dull. “We were scared of bombs and the Taliban there. It’s hunger that haunts us in this country.” He lives in a 200 sq ft apartment with his family of 12, including a few relatives.

Most of the refugees are in menial work because of the lack of work permits. Even those who have a decent education find it hard to get a job in New Delhi.

There is no official estimate of the actual number of Afghan refugees living in New Delhi. Unofficial numbers range from 10,000 to 60,000 in the region. Poor living standards and lack of a proper diet are also affecting the health of most of the refuges, particularly women and children. Afghan patients are a common sight at the local health clinics.

“I do not doubt that Afghan refugees are getting into drug paddling rackets. They have limited options. The cost of living is very high in the capital and the kind of job opportunity that the city offers us is not good enough to have two square meals,” says Feeroz. He has been living in Delhi for the past year and works as a waiter in a restaurant.

The future of the Afghan children also hangs in balance. They remain at home, while older boys try to help their elders in the fight to put bread and butter on the table. Older girls help their mothers or aunts at home. Going to school is a distant dream for them.

“The biggest challenge for us to have food and make enough money to pay rent to the landlord. Everything else is a luxury for us” says Ashfaque Hussain. He is quick to add: “This includes education.”

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