Writer: Shreyas Raman writes from India where he notices the different perspectives that thousands of diverse people have.
Most of us have been constantly watching the news and hearing reports about the struggles faced by refugees in Europe. Everybody who has basic knowledge of the topic knows about the mass immigration of people to Europe, with reports of Syrians drowning on the high seas or being denied entry becoming alarmingly regular. However, countries like India who are generally out of the limelight in this context also have their own perspective on the crisis.
As an Indian myself, I have been exposed to the crisis from an Indian perspective and have seen how India is dealing with the refugee crisis. India is home to a Syrian embassy, which signifies to refugees that this is a country where one can receive shelter and protection, yet be connected to home.
India has seen its fair share of refugees in the past. In the 1960s and 70s, a massive influx of millions of refugee from Bangladesh (known as East Pakistan at that time) led India to fight the war that liberated Bangladesh and established it as a sovereign state. Millions of people fearing persecution and mistreatment in East Pakistan fled across the border into the Indian state of West Bengal. India herself was barely two decades old, having succeeded in her struggle for freedom from the British in only 1947. Ill equipped to handle refugees and barely managing to keep her own population secure, India was in no shape to handle refugees.
Despite this significant migrant crisis in India’s past, the people of India are very open to helping Syrians and unlike many Europeans; do not view them as threats to national security. Neither is India opposed to entry of Muslims into our nation, as our population demographic itself consists of 14.23% Muslims. However, due to the distance and logistical difficulties of commuting here from the Middle East, most poor Syrians are unable to seek refuge here. Because of this, the number of Syrians in India is very, very small and they mostly keep to themselves. The UNHCR in India reports that there are just 59 total registered non-tourist Syrians in India: 20 who seek asylum and 39 registered as refugees. The large majority of them have settled in India’s capital city, New Delhi.
Take the example of Irfan, a Syrian refugee settled in South Delhi. Most people do not treat him any different than a regular resident. They know him as the ‘Iraqi’ or sometimes the ‘Afghani’ because those are terms more commonplace in a regular India household as compared to ‘Syrian’. If not for his language, Irfan could have even blended into Indian society. Most people also refer to him as a Kashmiri, (Kashmir is a state on the Northern border of India, sharing borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan) since he is Muslim and has come from another place.
A different case is that of Rahim, a Syrian who came to India as a student in 2005. He has been working here after completing his education, but because of the civil war and the reign of Islamic State, he has not been able to visit home for the last 4-5 years. Somehow, he managed to get his wife to India and away from the chaos.
The issue of trust is also viewed very differently in India. While there will always be an inherent mistrust of foreigners in any part of the world, Indians are, in general, friendly towards refugees who act in keeping with the law and order situation and do not pose a threat to society. On the other hand, it is the Syrians who seem to have a lack of trust towards Indians. But can we really blame them for that after all they have gone through? Feroze, a Syrian who fled to India, cannot afford to risk talking to the media about his situation. He says that if anyone from the Assad government or from the ISIS were to find out that he had escaped and fled to India, they would kill his family members in Syria. Therefore, the mistrust Syrians bear is more due to the consequences of their circumstances than because of prejudice or perception of Indians.
The main issue faced by Syrians in India is that they are unable to communicate, as they do not know much English and do not speak any Indian language. Over and above that, their demographic is so small that they cannot seek much assistance, even from NGOs and other organizations that focus on helping refugees.
On the whole, India is willing and, in some cases, able to help Syrian refugees. However, our geographical positioning and inaccessibility, as well as the language barriers tend to make India an unviable option for refugees and asylum seekers. The people are open to contributing wherever they can, and doing their bit to help the Syrians, but the fact of the matter is that we are simply unable to do so in most cases, despite being willing. As a result, it has been left mostly up to diplomats and our leaders to cooperate with other nations at the international level to ensure that Syrians can find a place to live, work and be safe while their homeland is in a state of chaos and turmoil.