Problems between the UNHCR and India’s Somali refugee population arose in January 2006, when the UNHCR suspended registration for all Somalis seeking refugee status. None of the Somalis were informed about the suspension at the time that it was instated and only after six months did they finally become aware of it.
The suspension was designed to deter new asylum seekers approaching the office and to worsen the living conditions of existent refugees, who would then be inclined to go away. The UNHCR began the process by ceasing to refer resettlement cases in August 2005, and by barring Somalis from registering for refugee status in January 2006. In the same month, subsistence allowances (SAs) were withdrawn for newly recognized and some older refugees. The UNHCR also refused to declare the results of past interviews and cancelled all interview appointments. Resettlement cases that were nearing their final stages were discontinued and concerns about police harassment, health care and housing went unheeded. The UNHCR declared that it was up to the Somalis to decide whether they wanted to hide in Delhi or move away.
On 1 March 2007, the UNHCR lifted the suspension and assured the Somalis that protocol would return to normal. In reality, nothing returned to “normal”. Although refugee status determination (RSD) was restarted, the process became even harder and more drawn out. Before the suspension, Somali cases were typically reviewed within four months of being submitted. After the suspension, however, wait times stretched well over 10 months. Upon submitting an application, Somali refugees typically now wait about 18 months before being scheduled for an interview. Once interviewed, wait times for results vary. In some cases, results have taken years to process and only a small number have received word within a few months. Furthermore, when refugees married and officially sought to add family members to their application, it used to take around a month to do so, whereas now it takes around a year to get approval. There are many children who still await to be added to the principal applicant’s file.
Disbursal of SA payments has been precarious. Sometimes the UNHCR entirely discontinues them and other times it simply reduces them. Some elderly and sick Somalis are receiving only around Rs. 600, without provisions for health care or education. After refugee certificates are granted, SA is supposed to be given out at the beginning of the next month, though some Somalis have had to wait 3-4 months. There is also no fixed day for SA disbursal, which causes much confusion among refugees.
All accepted Somali refugees receive a “blue certificate”, which protects them from deportation but does not grant them the same rights as a Residence Permit (RP). As a result, they are not given access to the same services as those refugees who are allowed to hold RPs. They cannot benefit from health care, educational institutions or job training resources. They cannot get rooming in guesthouses or travel freely within India or even procure cooking gas. The “blue certificates” that Somalis hold are barely recognized by police within Delhi, and entirely discounted in other States. For this very reason, the police routinely arrest them and accuse them of violating Section 14 of the Foreigners’ Act.
Even though Somalis are not officially allowed to rent accommodation, they have no other option but to seek out living arrangements. It is very difficult for them to do so and it often takes months of hard work. When they do find an apartment, it is always costly and landlords impose too many restrictions and often take advantage of their status.
Health care is a major problem for many refugees. Government hospitals are overcrowded and some patients are told to wait up to three years for urgent operations. Many refugees are forced to go to private hospitals for treatment, especially in case of accidents requiring immediate care. The UNHCR does not involve itself in such situations and does not help cover fees or medications prescribed.
When the Somalis voice their concerns about these realities, the UNHCR simply states that its primary responsibility is to protect them from deportation and that general assistance is not an automatic right.
In the last three years or so, the Somalis have spoken to different UNHCR officers about their situation, stressing that Somali problems are unique from those of other refugee groups. For a long time, the UNHCR refused to acknowledge the distinct hindrances facing Somalis. In October 2008 in an open meeting with the UNHCR, however, the new Chief of Mission agreed with the Somalis that they brought unique challenges. She said that she has read all the letters that Somalis have sent over the years and even listened to their problems on that day first hand. She knows that it is difficult and that Somalis cannot go back to Somalia at the moment due to continuing conflict and that, at the same time, they have difficulties integrating into India. The only solution is the resettlement. The problem is with the embassies as they are not requesting Somali cases. There are many other problems like lack of staff and lack of funds. Therefore she cannot promise anything. She does not have a magic solution. Some Somalis have even asked to be repatriated to Somalia, but the UNHCR refuses to consider this as they did not bring them to India.
Somalis do not believe in or agree with this explanation. They feel that they are being punished and that this is the UNHCR’s way of discouraging their community from seeking refuge in India. Due to their own lack of political or monetary agency in India, they believe that it is up to the UNHCR to refer their problems to embassies of the resettling countries, to NGOs that could help refugees, and to appeal to donor countries for help.