NEW DELHI — When Hujjat Islam heard a fire had razed a Rohingya camp in New Delhi, his first reaction was relief: it could have been him and his family, their belongings burned to ashes, if he had not found a home for them elsewhere in the city.
The fire last month gutted the flimsy shacks of plywood and tarpaulin of about 220 Rohingya on a plot of land belonging to Muslim charity Zakat Foundation. There were no casualties.
Islam, who fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar in 2002 and to India six years later, lives in a small rented home and has a regular job, unlike most other refugees in the city.
“As refugees, finding jobs and homes are huge problems. We don’t have money, we don’t have documents, so we are forced to stay where we can, and do any job available,” he said.
“For those in the camp, it was even worse — their homes got flooded in the rain, the women couldn’t go out, children got bitten by snakes. When you are able to work and have some money, it is a little better,” he said.
Islam is among thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have settled in India in recent years after fleeing violence and persecution in Myanmar, escaping by boat or on foot to Bangladesh, and then to India.
But here too, they face suspicion and harassment, and a long fight to secure jobs, homes and documentation.
Their situation is exacerbated by the fact that India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which spells out legal obligations to protect refugees. It also does not have a domestic law to ensure their rights.
“India has a very strong tradition of accepting refugees. But it’s more a charity-based approach than a rights-based one, and that’s problematic,” said Jessica Field, an assistant professor at the O.P. Jindal Global University in Delhi.
“The legal precariousness means the majority of refugees head for cities, where they can be anonymous and find work. But they are also more vulnerable there, and can struggle to access basic services,” said Field, who has studied refugees in Delhi.
Globally, more than 60 percent of refugees live in urban areas, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). Increasing numbers of them are women, children and elderly people.
India has long been a safe haven in a volatile region, home to more than 200,000 refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom were forced to flee conflict or persecution in nearby countries including Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Myanmar.
In recent years many have headed to New Delhi, where the UNHCR is located, to get their ID cards.
In the city, men find daily-wage jobs in construction or in the markets.
Women often have greater freedom to work and move about, but may also feel more afraid and isolated as they are not in their community, said Field.
“Refugees, just as many others, want to live in urban areas, hoping that they can enjoy increased access to basic services and better opportunities,” said Ipshita Sengupta, a policy associate at the UNHCR.
“Living outside camps provides such opportunities.”
The Indian government offers prima facie recognition for two refugee groups — Tibetans and Sri Lankan Tamils — because of historic religious and ethnic connections, and recently proposed to give Tibetans more welfare benefits.
Some 54,000 Chakma and Hajong who fled Bangladesh more than five decades ago are set to get limited citizenship, while Maharashtra State has granted property rights to Hindu refugees who left Pakistan 70 years ago.
A 2016 bill proposed to make illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh eligible for citizenship.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has taken a tough stance on Rohingyas, calling them a security threat and saying they should be deported.
A petition against deportation is pending in the top court.
In India, there are some 38,000 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the UNHCR, of whom 17,000 are Rohingya.
The unequal policy stance is stoking tensions even amongst refugees, Field told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The lack of a legal framework enables the differential treatment framed around ethno-religious identity, or relations with these countries,” she said.
“Poverty and politics reinforce the refugees’ vulnerability, which is heightened in an urban setting.”
The UNHCR issues ID cards to registered refugees and documents to those who are seeking asylum, which help prevent arbitrary arrest and deportation.
The authorities issue long-term visas, which are essential to open bank accounts and rent homes.
But a recent mandate requiring Aadhaar, a government-issued biometric identity, poses additional challenges for refugees.
“It has adversely impacted their daily lives, as many of them do not have access to these cards,” said Sengupta.
“Inclusive documentation and policies allowing refugees access to basic rights and services will enable them to become constructive members of the host society,” she said.
There is compelling evidence of their contribution. A 2015 UN study found with every dollar spent on refugees, roughly $0.50 is added to the economy through multiplier effects.
The UNHCR has partnered with civic groups in Delhi to train and place refugees in jobs. Two examples are catering groups run by Afghan and Somali refugee women making dishes from their homelands.
A separate initiative led by Delhi University students employs half a dozen Afghan refugee women, making edible bowls and cutlery from millets and wheat flour.
“The opportunity to work and earn a living is one of the most effective ways to rebuild lives,” said Sengupta.
“These initiatives not only provide earning opportunities, but also help build bridges with local communities,” she said.
For now, the Rohingyas in Kalindi Kunj in Delhi are rebuilding their homes after the fire, and everyone lives in fear of arrest or deportation every day, said Islam.
“No one wants to leave their homes and go to another country. But we are helpless,” he said.
“This is a big city, we are not here to take away anyone else’s jobs or homes.”