Friday, June 18, 2010

Refugee Urbanisation : Protection Challenges and Emerging Opportunities

UNHCR, New Delhi

With increased urbanisation, more and more refugees and asylum seekers are moving to cities and towns. Nearly half of the 10.5 million refugees and 1 million asylum seekers under UNHCR’s protection live in cities and towns and a large proportion of them are expected to become permanent urban residents.

Refugees are logically drawn towards cities and towns as places promising better security and opportunity. The reality, however, is very different. In the absence of socio-economic support, safe housing, basic identity documents and necessary survival skills, refugees often find themselves ‘excluded’ in urban environments.

UNHCR’s Policy on Urban Refugees

UNHCR’s long experience in working with urban refugees bears testimony to the many difficulties they face in an urban context as increasing security concerns have led to tightening of border controls and shrinking of the global humanitarian space.

Violence and exploitation largely stem from living on the margins of poverty in dispersed urban areas. Constant competition for scarce resources and negative perceptions about refugees lead to clashes between local communities and refugees. Social ills including substance abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence etc are widely reported among refugee communities.

As observed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Antonio Guterres:
The plight of refugees and others of concern in urban areas cannot be treated in isolation but needs to be responded to in the broader context of the urban poor. The humanitarian community needs to reassess its paradigm of assistance in urban areas. Humanitarian actors in urban areas need to determine how community-based and bottom-up initiatives can be better supported.

UNHCR’s first global policy document on ‘urban refugees’ published in 1997 did not go as far as expected towards finding solutions for this group. A revised version of this policy was released in 2009.

The salient features of the new policy are as follows:
1.Rights of refugees and UNHCR and state responsibilities towards them are not affected by their location, their means of arrival or status.
2.Protection space for urban refugees should be maximized.
3.Protection of urban refugees is a shared responsibility between states, municipal authorities, communities, humanitarian agencies and civil society.

The policy is already being implemented in several UNHCR operations across the world, including India.

Refugees Under UNHCR Protection in New Delhi

India is not party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol and does not have a domestic refugee protection framework. Based on a long tradition of hospitality, the government of India grants asylum to approximately 200,000 refugees from Tibet and Sri Lanka and generally respects the principle of non-refoulement for holders of UNHCR documentation.

UNHCR’s operation in India, based in New Delhi, works with individual refugees and asylum seekers from non-neighbouring countries as well as Myanmar. As of 31 May 2010, there were 13,485 refugees under UNHCR’s protection, primarily from Afghanistan and Myanmar and in smaller numbers from countries as diverse as Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Palestine (ex-Iraq), Sudan, Eritrea, etc, mostly residing in New Delhi. UNHCR also has a small presence in Chennai to support the voluntary repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees.

The number of asylum seekers under UNHCR’s mandate has nearly doubled in the last year, from 4,206 at the end of 2008 to 7,344 in May 2010. To deal with this upward trend, UNHCR outsourced registration of newly arrived asylum seekers to an implementing partner in July 2009. Asylum seekers are now registered within two to three weeks of approaching UNHCR; a vast improvement from the eight to nine month waiting period for registration previously.

Once declared as a refugee in accordance with UNHCR’s refugee status determination procedures, refugees receive a basic subsistence allowance from UNHCR for a short period. UNHCR is committed to use its limited resources in the best possible manner and is gradually shifting towards provision of targeted assistance to refugees with specific needs.

In line with UNHCR’s urban refugee policy, UNHCR in India aims to strengthen refugees’ coping mechanisms in an urban environment by providing language lessons in Hindi and English, vocational training and promoting self-reliance and livelihood opportunities. Although refugees do not have the legal right to work in India and are not issued work permits, they have limited employment options in the informal sector where nearly 92 per cent of the Indian workforce is employed.

An in-depth livelihoods assessment was conducted in 2009 in order to better understand the urban livelihoods situation and to develop adequate livelihood support strategies. UNHCR along with its partner runs livelihood support programmes for refugees in New Delhi such as the KOSHISH project, an apparel manufacturing and retail unit and other income generation activities such as manufacturing of paper bags and plates, bedcovers, cushion covers, table napkins, wall-hangings, mobile phone pouches, candles etc.

Due to a dramatic rise in the number of asylum seekers approaching UNHCR in the recent past, they have to wait for long periods before their refugee status is determined. UNHCR’s efforts are geared towards bridging the gap in services provided to refugees and asylum seekers under UNHCR protection, with particular emphasis on ensuring real access to government education and healthcare services for all. Asylum seekers like refugees have access to language training, counseling support and legal aid services provided by UNHCR.

Since refugee and asylum seeker parents are reluctant to enrol their children in government schools for a variety of reasons, UNHCR is working closely with its partners to create awareness among communities through targeted education campaigns to encourage more refugee and asylum seeker children to attend government schools. The enactment of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act in April 2010 has further enhanced the possibility of these children attending government schools.

UNHCR runs crèches for children between the ages of 1-5 years in areas where most refugees live and work. These crèches, while affording a safe environment for children while their parents work or are engaged in other learning activities, also provides them with a level of pre-school education which will eventually allow them to join the Indian educational system. UNHCR also provides bridge lessons to assist children in joining Indian schools and tuition classes to school going children. Children above the age of 12 years also have the option of enrolling in the national open school system.

Despite having access to affordable government health care facilities in New Delhi, refugees and asylum seekers prefer private healthcare services, which are costlier and may not be as effective. The logic that informs UNHCR’s global health policy is
When health services are of adequate quality and used by the national host populations, the use of public health systems is preferred. However, in some countries these systems are not functioning adequately and citizens do not use them. In these circumstances, UNHCR may have to seek other alternatives such as non-profit, NGO, community-based, faith-based and private services.

Moreover, the assessment, monitoring and evaluation of health needs of refugees in an urban setting are never easy due to the dispersed nature of the population. UNHCR is in the process of strengthening its health outreach facilities and establishing a strong health information system. As in the case of financial assistance, UNHCR prioritises its efforts and allocates its limited resources towards the provision of health services to those refugees and asylum seekers whose needs are most urgent.

UNHCR hopes that these newly introduced measures will go a long way in preserving and enhancing the protection space for refugees and asylum seekers through effective access to basic services and strengthened livelihood support.


World Refugee Day, 2010

"They took my HOME but they can't take my FUTURE"

World Refugee Day celebrated on the 20th of June, is a tribute to the courage and dignity of refugees worldwide. This year, the theme for World Refugee Day is, "Home" in recognition of the plight of more than 40 million uprooted people around the world: “They took my HOME but they can’t take my FUTURE”. Around 10.5 million of them are refugees of special concern to UNHCR. World Refugee Day has become an annual celebration marked by a variety of events in over a hundred countries.

World Refugee Day was first celebrated in June 2001, with a spectacular sound and light show at the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. This year, the Empire State Building in New York, the ancient Colosseum in Rome and the bridge across the Ibar River in Mitrovica, Kosovo will be lit in blue as a sign of respect and solidarity for refugees.

World Refugee Day provides an opportunity for UNHCR to thank those individuals and nations that have opened their doors and their hearts to refugees. In India, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) celebrates the day with refugees and asylum seekers, through various cultural events that are held in New Delhi. Organised by UNHCR's implementing partners in areas where refugees and asylum seekers live, this is a platform to share their culture and traditions with their friends and neighbours.

A Public Lecture titled "The Future of Human Rights in a Home Away from Home: Towards Rethinking the Right to have Human Rights" will be delivered by Professor Upendra Baxi, Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Warwick and University of Delhi, at Casuarina Hall, India Habitat Centre at 6.30 p.m on Monday. 21st June 2010. be delivered by Professor Upendra Baxi, Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Warwick and University of Delhi, at Casuarina Hall, India Habitat Centre at 6.30 p.m on Monday. 21st June 2010.

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