This reflective piece was written soon after I returned from an internship working with refugees from Burma in India. I had the opportunity to work with a team of interns and staff through the University of New South Wales, helping to facilitate a dialogue between refugees from New Delhi and Mizoram and UNHCR staff. The conditions we witnessed and stories that we heard were shocking. They still shake me to my very core now.
It is now several months after, and as I read back on the piece, I acknowledge how raw and unpolished it is. My initial reaction to my experience there was a mixture of sadness, anger, shame, guilt and sympathy. These emotions soon gave way to an overall feeling of hopelessness. Once that dissipated, with the realisation that continuing to feel this was just another form of self indulgence, my emotions started to even out more as I had more time to process what I felt. What was written below was therefore the most raw, immediate reaction that I had upon returning to Australia.
I am amazed at how the context of a visit can change your impression of a country. Three years ago, I spent six weeks travelling throughout India. As a backpacker, my impression of the place was that despite the poverty and all the problems faced by the country, it was an overall happy place. I found pieces of evidence to support this view the entire time, whether it was the chuckling auto drivers, or the children playing cricket in the streets. I chose to block out the lepers and beggars, lined up like dominoes along the street pavement, sleeping in swags because they had no where else to go.
This time, there was none of that. There was no doubting the fact that the overwhelming impression I got from India was one of hopelessness. That the entire country is so full of problems, that there really is no hope for groups at the bottom of the pile, such as the refugees.
What makes it so hard for refugees in a country like India? I can think of two reasons off the top of my head. There are over 1.1 billion people all fighting for that last piece of the pie. Whoever doesn’t have access to it, or whoever is at the back of the queue, well, they don’t have much of a chance. As the Indian government always says – how can we provide a high standard of living for refugees when so many of our own countrymen live in absolute poverty? That argument is both irrefutable and ultimately unsatisfying, because it stratifies human beings into classes, where one class of person deserves one lot, whereas another class of person doesn’t. Which explains a little of the background to the next possible reason. In India, in a country where the caste system is still so obvious, there are still well-defined classes and boundaries. And there’s no doubt that the refugees are at the bottom of this pile.
The refugees are not only the lowest class, but they are divided into classes themselves. Out of the Somali, Afghani and Burmese refugees, it was definitely the Somalis who had the worst conditions. They were not allowed to have basic registration, while other groups could. The only possible reason why this might occur is quite simply because they are black. Because they are black refugees, not only are they another sub-class, they are simply sub-human.
I can’t claim to know enough about Hinduism, spirituality and reincarnation, but I get the strong feeling that through a mixture of these things, there’s the acceptance of my lot in life, no matter how bad it is. Maybe it’s because of reincarnation, because of something I did in a previous life. Or maybe it’s because I just don’t have a choice. But in India, lots of people look down on people below them with glee. One story that will always stick with me is the story of how refugees from Burma have to go to the night market to pick up rotten fruit and vegetables at the end of the day, because they cannot afford to feed their families otherwise. This is produce which is not good enough for Indian people to sell to other Indian people. It is simply thrown on the floor. The Indian people know this happens, so some of the men will deliberately urinate on the fruit and vegetables. It’s not enough that the refugees have to scavenge for food without nutrients, but some of the locals need to rub it in their faces and humiliate them. What does this say about how we, as people, treat others?
What does it say about their ability to live lives with dignity when there are 7 or 8 people living in a room not much bigger than 3m x 3m, in conditions where it’s often impossible for all family members to lie down at the same time? Where sometimes family members have to go and sleep on the roof, causing their fathers and mothers to be afraid for their safety? We heard about the lack of sanitation, where more than 40 or 50 people have to wait to use one bathroom in the building. Where Indian landlords take advantage of refugees, because without proper documentation, they don’t have any legal rights. Often landlords would force the refugees to pay for the electricity bills of the entire building (including the landlord’s own home) instead of just their own apartment. And when the refugees were unable to pay up in time, or were late on rent, they would either rape the women, or simply kick them out.
This sort of stuff goes on all the time. When we were there, one man came to a day of our consultation and told the story of how he and his wife were kicked out of their apartment that morning, and then spent the morning wandering around looking for new accommodation before coming to be with us. Which amazes me – the dedication to attend despite all that – it showed that he really thought he was getting something out of it.
For refugees, they face all these sorts of problems continuously, but they don’t give up. They say they want to, but they don’t. I’ll never forget some of the things that were spoken – “Life is difficult in Burma, we don’t want to die, but here (in India) we want to die”. Somali refugees told us something similar, that they would rather UNHCR sent them back to their home countries, so they could at least die there, rather than in a foreign land.
I think in the entire two weeks, I felt the most disturbed and upset when I heard about the desperation that was coming out of the groups. Because when people are really desperate, they become irrational, and you can feel that straight away. They requested us (the interns) to go and work in the local offices of the implementing partners because Indian people feared Westerners, and they wouldn’t cheat the refugees anymore. The fact that this seemed like a rational solution that could solve a problem was so distressing.
It’s also distressing to hear about the problems that children are facing, and the fact that for most of them, they really don’t have a future worth talking about. And you can feel the pain in the voice of the parents when they say this. We met a husband and wife in their mid 30s who were just so in love with each other, and so gentle and kind to us. They had left 6 children behind in Burma – with no hope of ever seeing them again. If they ever did, it would be a miracle. But in some ways, a lot of the other refugees with children are not much better off. Because the children don’t have access to good education, and so there really is nothing that’s going to help them lift themselves out of this situation. And even if they do go to schools, they are bullied, teased and hit. Sometimes even raped. There’s nothing really on the horizon for future generations.
I cannot fathom sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). It is not something that I have personally had to deal with, or know anyone from my childhood who has faced it. I think the most distressing thing about SGBV is that it occurs everywhere. There was the perception that this was something that happens late at night, in dark alleys. But the truth is that it occurs in the workplace, in the homes, in the hospitals from the doctors when women work as interpreters, even by police. There is no respite. It seemed like wherever the women turned, it was there – there was no escaping it. Which is why traditional and outdated solutions to SGBV do not work. Many of these solutions tend to be victim focused, which not only shifts the blame from the perpetrator to the victim, it also means that victims have some level of choice in placing themselves in dangerous situations. But as I mentioned earlier, women are in dangerous situations anywhere they go. They cannot choose to come home before dark because they work till 9 o’clock at night for almost nothing, or because they need to go to the night market to scavenge for food. Any solution that has any chance of working has to address core problems that are being faced, such as the lack of decent income that underlies their lives, and most importantly, the solution has to come from the refugees themselves.
Ultimately, I felt that coming from the refugees, the only solution that would solve the vast majority of their problems was resettlement. But who wouldn’t think that? I wouldn’t want to be without rights and dignity in a country like India. But the sad thing is that for most of them, this isn’t going to happen. They will be stuck in India until they die. For most of them, their dreams of living in a country with relative freedom and rights and happiness – it just isn’t going to happen. And for me, that’s the saddest part.
I don’t feel hopelessness now. Just a wider recognition that the world is full of problems that people are facing on a daily basis, and that there are little things that we can do to help. That maybe we won’t be able to change the underlying factors that are causing all this suffering. I won’t be able to stop wars, end climate change, put an end to genocide or persecution. But I can make a noticeable difference to people’s lives. And this was backed up by the faith and trust shown towards us by the refugees. The first thing I need to do is start listening to them.
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