“Operationalizing UNHCR’s policy document, however, requires a broader, more in-depth understanding of the issues and challenges facing urban refugees. This report attempts to contribute to the development of that knowledge.” page 5.
The Women's Refugee Commission, in collaboration with UNHCR published a report titled, Bright Lights, Big City: Refugees Struggle to Make a Living in Delhi in July 2011 with the objective of contributing to the way in which the Urban Refugee Policy of UNHCR may be implemented in its letter and spirit.
This short note, is at once a review and an introduction to the report, which, in restating some of the conclusions made before in the context of refugees in Delhi, nevertheless makes a worthy attempt in comprehending the Urban Refugee Policy and its implications for Delhi.
The study, conducted over a fortnight in March 2011, focuses on the economic coping strategies of refugees, the protection risks associated with the coping strategies and potential market opportunities that may be exploited, given Delhi's unqiue context.
A number of conclusions in the Report are familiar and may be said to be a restatement and reiteration of existing knowledge. The report talks about refugees in the social and economic context of Delhi, including the hostility of the local communities, or the competition for jobs in the informal sector. It also does a comparison of the financial needs of refugees and the livelihood options currently before them. The report published by The Other Media, an organization that has had a long association with Burmese refugees, published a report in 2010, titled “Battling to Survive: A Study of Burmese Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Delhi” also touches upon these aspects, although the focus on the Urban Refugee Policy is not prominent in the latter.
One of the highlights of the Report is the articulation of UNHCR'S policy towards refugees in Delhi, althought not very clearly. The report states, “ UNHCR is piloting new approaches to working with urban refugees in New Delhi that demonstrate a progressive, rational way of addressing the growing urban population. These approaches include both broad coverage for access to basic services and attempts to address the specific needs of the most vulnerable”. The Report goes on to suggest to UNHCR that “...These efforts should be ratcheted up to the next level focusing on continuing to reduce the number of refugees receiving subsistence allowance by expanding employment opportunities and channeling available resources to job placement and job creation programs as referenced in the recommendations below.”
The Urban Refugee Policy is an important instrument, although it has taken more than a decade for UNHCR to arrive at the terms on which it would approach the issues facing refugees in urban areas. While the Report provides some window to the current policy of UNHCR in India (for instance, the provision of subsistence allowance to refugees being targeted towards on the most needy, the expansion of health care and other services to even those that are not recognized by UNHCR as refugees, the emphasis on government services for education and health care and discouraging private services etc), the implementation of the policy would require on one hand that refugees utilize the Urban Refugee policy to push for better protection and for UNHCR to realize that not all of its policy formulations would work adequately in the current context. Although India appears to provide a rich base of legal mechanisms and institutions on which refugee rights may be built, the actual implementation is full of hurdles, as the Report clearly points out. For instance, the Report talks about UNHCR's policy of encouraging refugees to access government schools and refers to the Right to Children of Compulsory Education Act, 2009, under which it is mandatory for the state to provide compulsory education for every child between 6-14 years; however, the experience of children with government schools, has not been as positive as UNHCR or its implementing partners would want refugees to believe.
To conclude, this Report is a useful addition to the existing knowledge of the status of refugees in Delhi. However, both the refugees as well as the implementors of the Policy would have to strive to make the policy work for them.
The Report can be accessed at
last accessed September 21, 2011)