A year after CAA, refugees in India still waiting for citizenship

Surbeer Singh was just three years old when his family fled Nangarhar province in Afghanistan to escape religious persecution and war in the 1980s. They have since lived in the northern city of Amritsar, waiting to be granted Indian citizenship.

Last December, India’s Hindu nationalist government amended the country’s citizenship law to expedite nationality for persecuted immigrants – except Muslims – from three neighbouring countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

But exactly a year since the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed by the country’s parliament, no immigrant has been granted citizenship under the CAA.

A Sikh refugee, Surbeer, 33, is among some 31,313 eligible refugees in India, most of them from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who have been waiting for years to get Indian citizenship.

He is worried about his status as his visa expired in July. “I am living on borrowed time on a borrowed land,” Surbeer said.

“They ask me to return to the place I fled [from]. How can I go back now? For me, India is my home,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that the Afghan embassy asked him to return to Kabul to obtain his visa.

“We faced religious persecution in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We face identity discrimination in India,” said Surbeer.

In Amritsar, a community of refugee families lives together in an area just five kilometres from the Golden Temple, one of the holiest shrines in the Sikh religion.

Face discrimination

Surbeer, who works as a spare parts dealer, is one of the lucky few refugees to now own a house. “When we came to India, we struggled in a small rented room in Krishna Nagar of Amritsar. Over the years, I worked hard and eventually I bought a flat in Golden Avenue of Amritsar with help of my relatives. It is registered on my wife’s name as she is an Indian citizen.

“We are doing fine with God’s grace. We eat well, sleep well and work well. The only issue is of visa and identity,” said Surbeer, who lives with his family of five.

“In Amritsar, people at times call us Afghani and Pakistani. At times, the schools ask for legal documents, our kids are afraid of showing their Afghani and Pakistani passports. People don’t prefer marrying our sons. They don’t do business with us,” he said.

Hundreds of such families have settled in the border districts of the Indian states of Punjab and Rajasthan as well as the capital, New Delhi.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the CAA aimed to help such refugees who have lived in India for years without any legal status.

But the controversial law, which sparked anti-Muslim riots in New Delhi, could not be availed by refugees as the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) failed to draft guidelines to operationalise it.

Al Jazeera mailed a detailed questionnaire to a MHA spokesperson but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Hindu refugees return to Pakistan

Last month, more than 200 Hindu and Sikh refugees returned to Pakistan in financial hardship as the law was not in operation, drawing critics to question the government’s sincerity towards refugees.

India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and it does not have a national policy on refugees, even though it is home to more than 200,000 refugees from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

The refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are granted long-term visas (LTV) initially for five years and then renewed every two years.

“LTV is no less than a house arrest. We are not allowed to leave the station without permission,” said Saran Singh.

As per their current visa norms, such migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are allowed to engage only in private employment. Children of such visa holders mostly drop out after schools as they are not allowed to move out of the city to pursue higher education.

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