"There is fear 24 hours a day," Pakistani Hindu Refugee Tells HAF Team
Washington, D.C. (February 19, 2013) -- "There is fear 24 hours a day...Hindus see themselves as helpless," recounted Chetan Ram, while describing life in Pakistan to the Hindu American Foundation's Director & Senior Human Rights Fellow, Samir Kalra, Esq., at the Chopasni refugee camp in Jodhpur, India.
Ram was part of a contingent of 204 Hindu refugees that fled Pakistan's southern Sindh province in September 2012, initially seeking shelter in a nearby temple before relocating to this makeshift tent settlement in the city's Shivanagar district. With mounting discrimination and violence in Pakistan, large numbers of Hindus, such as Ram, have migrated to India in recent years.
Kalra was joined by a Hindu American Foundation (HAF) team comprised of four physicians who were hosted by Hindu Singh Sodha, Chairman of Seemanth Lok Sangathan (SLS), a community-based organization assisting Pakistani Hindu refugees.
According to Sodha, approximately 1,000 Pakistani Hindus arrive annually in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan. Moreover, Sodha notes that there are now an estimated 400 Pakistani Hindu settlements scattered throughout Jodhpur and other cities in the state, including Jaisalmer, Bikaner, Barmer, and Ganganagar. Many Pakistani refugees have settled in other parts of India as well, including Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, and New Delhi.
"Having already endured religious persecution and tremendous suffering in Pakistan, it's heartbreaking to see these refugees living in such cramped and squalid conditions," said Kalra, who visited the Chopasni camp last month on a human rights fact-finding mission. "Under international law, they should be accorded formal refugee status and provided with basic accommodations and necessities."
Although Pakistani Hindus meet the criteria for refugee status under international law due to their well-founded fear of persecution and Pakistan's failure to protect them, they have not been officially recognized as refugees by either the Indian government or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, added Kalra.
Over three days, the team of HAF doctors, including Arvind Chandrakantan from Long Island, NY, Aseem Shukla from Philadelphia and Umesh Gidwani from New York City, with the assistance of SLS volunteers and locally based Pakistani Hindu physicians, provided primary medical care and triaging for more than 400 refugees.
"From the abundant colds and coughs due to living in open tents in the cold Jodhpur winter, to psychosomatic conditions, blindness and oral tumors, we were simply overwhelmed by the medical needs of these migrants," said Dr. Chandrakantan during the medical camps. "After visiting the Bhutanese Hindu refugee camp last year in Nepal and the Jodhpur camps this year, we at HAF remain committed to our twin goals of providing direct medical care while shining a light on these forgotten, but ongoing, human rights tragedies."
In addition to visiting the Chopasni camp, the HAF team also toured the Kali Beri and Banar Road settlements, both of which housed refugees living in India for a number of years. At the Banar Road camp, for instance, there were 330 Hindu refugees who left Pakistan's Punjab province in the early 1990s. Originally settling in Haryana, they moved to Jodhpur last December in the hopes of obtaining Indian citizenship from the Rajasthan state government.
Similarly, the Kali Beri settlement contained 100 - 115 Pakistani Hindu families (each with an average of seven to eight members), who arrived in India several years ago.
At each of the camps, the Foundation's team documented the living conditions, conducted interviews and medical assessments, and provided basic health care to the refugees.
The Foundation has enumerated its findings in a report which it expects to release shortly, along with an appeal for additional medical personnel and assistance from the Hindu American community.