Bright Lights, Big City - Urban Refugees Struggle to Make a Living in New Delhi
An estimated 58 percent of all refugees now live in cities.
The urban refugee population is increasing rapidly, but models for service delivery and protection have not kept pace. Applying camp-based approaches is both prohibitively expensive and inappropriate. The international and local community must identify strategies and models for assisting urban refugees that promote self-help, self-reliance and access to and support for existing host government services, as well as refugees’ integration into existing development and poverty alleviation programs.
As part of a year-long study on urban refugee livelihoods, the Women’s Refugee Commission undertook a field assessment trip to New Delhi, India, from late February to mid-March 2011. The assessment focused on refugees‘ economic coping strategies, protection risks associated with those coping strategies and potential market opportunities. Key stakeholders from the service provider, donor and refugee communities were consulted and the findings reflect an amalgamation of the many voices and perspectives gleaned through the interviews, project site visits and focus group discussions.
New Delhi is home to more than 21,000 “persons of concern” to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): 15,269 refugees and 6,092 asylum seekers. The largest populations are Afghan (10,758) and Burmese, primarily Burmese Chin (9,109), with much smaller populations of Somalis (833), Iraqis, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Congolese, Sudanese, Iranians, Pakistanis and Palestinians.
Although the government does not grant refugees the right to work and, thus, does not issue them work permits, irrespective of whether they possess residence permits, they are allowed or tolerated to work in the informal economy.
Unlike many urban refugee settings, New Delhi is home to a dynamic, expanding market where the informal sector offers plentiful job opportunities. These opportunities, however, attract an estimated 500,000 Indians per year migrating from poorer Indian states, such as Bihar, which results in suppressed wages, exploitative labor practices and high rents. Indian migrants, reportedly, will work longer hours for lower wages than refugees will, including 10- to 12-hour days, seven days per week. Employers report that they are always able to find employees who will work for less money than refugees will accept.