Why is Aadhaar still a barrier for refugee children in India ?

Over a third of refugees in India are children. For many, the requirement of Aadhaar for admission and other benefits is a barrier to education.

Government has maintained a narrative of humiliation and inhuman treatment for the community. (Representational Image: Careers360)Government has maintained a narrative of humiliation and inhuman treatment for the community. (Representational Image: Careers360)

Sheena Sachdeva | February 20, 2024 | 12:46 PM IST

KALINDI KUNJ, NEW DELHI: In mid-January, Faizan, 11 and living in a Rohingya refugee camp in Delhi’s Kalindi Kunj, went to the nearby government school for admission. He was turned away because he did not have an Aadhaar card – India’s 12-digit biometric-based identity number and card. In 2012, Faizan, then an infant, and his parents had fled from Myanmar and had come to India due to extreme violence in their country.

Faizan (name changed) and his family are among 30,187 Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers who escaped persecution and ethnic violence in Myanmar and came to India, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Of the total refugee population of 46,569 in India, 37 per cent are children and about 28 per cent among them are school-going, between the ages of five and 17 years. Although many Rohingya Muslims fled to India before 2012, most had their refugee cards made that year, said a community leader, seeking anonymity.

Priyali Sur, founder and executive director of The Azaadi Project, said: “School education is difficult for Rohingya refugees in India. Primary education is still possible, but secondary education is far-fetched because they lack crucial documents. Many of these refugee children are born in India but they don’t get certificates. So documentation is a serious concern”.

India does not have a central policy for refugees and their protection.

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Kalindi Kunj refugee camp

Around 70 other Rohingya children from the same camp in Kalindi Kunj have been admitted to school since 2021, thanks to the intervention of the non-profit Bosco Organisation for Social Concern and Operation (BOSCO), a UNHCR partner. Before that happened, children used to attend a budget private school which shut during the pandemic.

But recently, teachers from the government school have been asking for the details of Aadhaar-linked bank accounts in order to receive government benefits. The students have been threatened expulsion if they are not submitted.

Minerva, a volunteer from the community for BOSCO, said: “All children have been told by school authorities to get a bank account, else their names will be struck off from the rolls. This is despite them being aware of the children’s refugee status. With no house, income or even an Aadhaar card, bank accounts cannot be opened.”

Children are struggling to access secondary and tertiary education for the same reason. “The lack of legal documentation is hindering their access to the government’s education programmes,” said a UNHCR official.

Rohingya, refugee, rohingya refugee, refugee education, aadhaar, aadhaar uidaiKalindi Kunj camp in Delhi.

The hurdle

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, – the RTE Act – and the Delhi rules based on it, mandate a range of benefits for children in elementary school – Classes 1 to 8. These include books and uniforms. Apart from that, there are a variety of government financial aid schemes. In 2017, the Delhi government made Aadhaar enrolment compulsory for school admission. It also made linking of bank accounts a must to receive the benefits. “Initially, we were told that Aadhaar would not be needed to get enrolled in schools, but teachers are now pestering children for the same now,” said another community leader from Kalindi Kunj.

Government schools are the only option. Families are surviving on Rs 400-500 per day that they earn from doing odd jobs. “We are constantly trying to speak with the school and solve the problem. Someone from BOSCO sometimes visits and speaks to the principal to let the children enter the school and attend classes. But this is a constant hassle,” said the community leader.

It doesn’t end there. Most parents have to write letters highlighting their refugee status to the schools again and again as teachers aren’t aware of their admission process. Faizan was finally admitted after continuous efforts and constant follow-up by NGO workers.

Usually, a legal intervention helps. In January 2024, lawyer and activist Ashok Agarwal filed a petition in the Delhi High Court seeking monetary support under the RTE for a group of Afghan refugee children studying in Delhi government schools. They had been denied the benefits due to the lack of Aadhaar cards and bank accounts. The judgement said: “These children of Afghan refugees will now benefit from the central government’s Samagra Shiksha Scheme and will receive a bearer cheque in the name of the student from the school principal’s account.”

Although the High Court judgement must be applicable to all similar cases, implementation is a problem. “Many times it has been reiterated by the government that the Aadhaar card should not be a hindrance for children to receive education and services, but it doesn’t trickle down to the school officials,” said a member of BOSCO.

Tahreen Chaudhary, former member, Socio Legal Information Centre added: “Aadhaar is just a proof of your residence, not citizenship. The official language says that anyone residing in India can get an Aadhaar. Even in 2018, the Supreme Court had ruled that Aadhaar is not mandatory for bank accounts and school admissions. But still children of refugees face challenges in getting enrolled in schools.”

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NIOS programme

For older children, past the age that falls within the ambit of the RTE Act, Aadhaar poses an even bigger problem. “Children younger than 14 can still get direct admission in schools. But for those above, without any official documents, getting admission is nearly impossible,” said Sur.

To solve this problem, BOSCO has started free programmes called NIOS-BOSCO for refugee children to complete Classes 10 and 12 through the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS). It had also launched a training centre to coach children over 14, host bridge classes for computer applications, spoken English, maths and other important skills. That has now closed.

“As the RTE Act provides free education only until the age of 14 and refugee students above this age face problems getting into mainstream schools, these programmes have been running for over 15 years,” said Zehra, a teacher from the training centre. “The refugee children would be first acquainted with Hindi and English and then sent to NIOS-BOSCO.”

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Refugees in Hyderabad

The situation is better in Hyderabad, Telangana, where a large Rohingya community has settled. Save The Children Foundation, a partner of UNHCR till December 2023, has finally, through many years of struggle, managed to ensure that all refugee children have proper access to education in primary, secondary and senior secondary schools, stated Mohammad Asif of the foundation.

“Telangana has been very proactive in ensuring the implementation of Right to Education for refugee children irrespective of the Aadhaar card barrier. The state government also issued a proceeding [or, official order] where they considered the refugee card instead of Aadhaar cards. These children were able to complete even the board classes,” Asif added.

Last year, around three batches of Rohingya refugee children passed the Class 10 and 12 board exams. The state also had bridge classes for children to learn the language before attending a full-time school.

The challenges

The recent Israel-Palestine war and the Russia-Ukraine one before it have strained resources available for refugees around the world.

BOSCO’s UNHCR-supported centre, attended by most refugee children over 18 in Delhi, was closed down. “UNHCR is facing funding crunches and it’s a challenge for the body to run all the programmes,” said a BOSCO official on conditions of anonymity.

Finding low-cost alternatives to the BOSCO centres is a problem, said Mizan, a community leader at Kalindi Kunj. She herself was attending coaching classes at the free BOSCO centre along with many others. “I am doing Class 11 from NIOS and was attending bridge classes until the centre was shut down. There is no information on when it will restart,” she said.

The larger issue

The way the government has treated the Rohingya hasn’t helped. Chaudhary said: “In terms of Rohingya refugees, there are problems ranging from how they are seen in India, in different parts like Jammu, Delhi, Jaipur and other cities, and the kind of narrative the government promotes. The government has maintained a narrative of humiliation and inhuman treatment for the community. And accessing education is a problem due to that narrative”. The Rohingya are considered the world’s most persecuted community.

Sur added that access to education for the Rohingya refugees is a recent phenomenon. “Three years ago, they were not able to write the 10th board, let alone gain higher education,” she said. “However, admission in universities is still very difficult.”

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