An Afghan Christian widow and three of her daughters were denied refugee status by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in New Delhi for the second time last month, and currently face imminent deportation to their home country where they could face imprisonment for apostasy and a potential death sentence.
The widow and her daughters, whose names have not been released for security reasons, received a deportation notice from the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs after their first application for asylum was rejected in October 2009, International Christian Concern (ICC), a global Christian advocacy group, informed The Christian Post. When the mother reapplied in July 2011 with her three daughters and a fourth daughter, who is widowed with a child, only the widowed daughter and the child were accepted. The others are no longer permitted to correspond with the UNHCR office and are currently living in India as illegal immigrants, ICC said.
"All members of the family left Afghanistan for the same reason, all of them are Christians, and all are facing the same kind of problem," Obaid S. Christ, a leader of the Afghan Christian community in New Delhi, told ICC. "If two members of the same family are recognized as refugees and four others are denied, there is definitely something wrong with the UNHCR judgment system. We believe that the UNHCR office blindly closed their application without making any inquiry, investigation, or considering the new facts and real danger that these women are facing back in their home country."
The UNHCR "Guidelines for International Protection" state: "the term 'refugee' shall apply to any person who [qualifies as having] well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."
The women were turned down by the agency on the basis that they failed to meet the criteria set forth in Article 6B of the UNHCR statute, which states that a person can receive refugee status if "[he or she has a] well-founded fear of persecution by reason of his race, religion, nationality or political opinion…," ICC told CP in a statement.
The Christian Post was unable to contact UNHCR in India or the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs for immediate comment.
Apostasy in Islam can be punished with death, based on Sharia, or Islamic law (influenced by the Quran and teachings from the prophet Muhammad). Multiple cases of persecution against Christian converts in countries where Muslims are in the majority have been reported in recent years.
The situation in Afghanistan, where 99 percent of the population is reportedly Muslim, is very unfriendly toward not only converts, but Christianity in general, according to multiple reports. In October, the U.S. Department of State reported that there was not one Christian church or school left in Afghanistan.
The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) wrote in its recent report that "conditions for religious freedom [in Afghanistan] remain exceedingly poor for minority religious communities and dissenting members of the majority faith, despite the presence of U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan for almost 10 years and the substantial investment of lives, resources, and expertise by the United States and international community."
The agency's chairman, Leonard Leo, said recently that Afghanistan is a country of particular concern to the USCIRF, because religious minorities, including Christians (less than 1 percent of the population), are facing imminent danger and possible eradication.
"In 2011, at least two Christians in Afghanistan were imprisoned by the Karzai administration, another was brutally beheaded by the Taliban, and nearly all Afghan Christians lived in fear of persecution," Aidan Clay, ICC Regional Manager for the Middle East, said in a statement to CP. "There is no evidence to suggest that the situation for Christians is improving, but every indication that it is only getting worse. Deporting the Christian widow and her three daughters back to Afghanistan will lead to inevitable hardship, if not imprisonment or even death. We urge the UNHCR to immediately reopen and approve this family's applications for asylum."
Afghan Christian refugees in India are not alone, as similar requests have been denied by the UNHCR in other countries as well, including Britain, Clay told CP.
The UNHCR would not define the Afghan women as refugees, but as "asylum-seekers" – "someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated," according to the agency's website.
"National asylum systems are there to decide which asylum-seekers actually qualify for international protection," the page explains. "Those judged through proper procedures not to be refugees, nor to be in need of any other form of international protection, can be sent back to their home countries."
The UNHCR in New Delhi came under fire in June 2011 after officials rejected the applications of eight Afghan Christian families who had recently fled persecution in their homeland.
There are currently 184,821 refugees residing in India, according to UNHCR data.