30th July 2018   •   article
The UK Home Office has been rejecting Afghan Sikh refugees out of ignorance

by Barfi Culture Team | @barfi_culture.
Image: Screenshot: Hindu Kush to Thames
A few weeks ago, the UK Home Office rejected an Afghan Sikh family's application for asylum partly because they couldn't find any "assessment or tests" to confirm they were Sikh, even though the family had a letter of support from their local Gurdwara.

The incident left academic Dr Jasjit Singh fuming.

"This is ridiculous. Since when has @ukhomeoffice required congregations to complete tests to confirm their religious adherence? And why aren't letters of support from Gurdwaras enough?" - he tweeted.

"This is such a colossal waste of time and resource thanks to religious illiteracy around minority ethnic religions," he added.

He had good reasons to be annoyed.

Afghan Sikhs applying for asylum into the UK face major barriers including having to prove they are Sikh. It’s generally assumed they all speak Punjabi, know Sikh history and keep long hair, he told Barfi Culture.

But many don’t speak Punjabi as their mother tongue and some do cut their hair often after facing threats and discrimination.

This "religious illiteracy" means many Sikhs genuinely fleeing persecution from extremists in Afghanistan are rejected by the UK Home Office even if they have a legitimate case.

Why is this issue important?

In late June a devastating terror attack on Sikh and Hindu leaders in Afghanistan sent shockwaves through the community. It also illustrated the dangers that religious minorities face in Afghanistan. Around 700,000 Hindus and Sikhs are estimated to have lived in Afghanistan in the 1970s, many say that number is down to less than 3,000.

Canadian Sikh groups have been loudly calling on their government to offer asylum to more Afghan Sikhs, though the response has been muted.

A similar call is being made by British Sikh groups. "Afghan Sikhs we've spoken to in London have told us it is now time for Sikhs to leave Afghanistan and seek sanctuary elsewhere," says Lord Singh from the Network of Sikh Organisations.

How a British Sikh is helping Aghans

Dr Jasjit Singh, a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, has been repeatedly called in by lawyers representing Afghani Sikhs asylum seekers to help with their claims.

"I've interviewed the claimants to establish their 'Sikh-ness' using my knowledge of the Sikh tradition. Rather than relying on text book representations I've asked them about their ‘lived’ Sikh practices," he told Barfi Culture.

But there are several cases where the Home Office has rejected applicants out of ignorance, after referring to sources with factual errors like this one at the WSJ.

Only last week it changed guidelines accepting that Afghan Sikhs and Hindus may also speak Pasto, Dari or Kabli as their primary language.

He stresses that the UK government does the same with Christian and Muslim who are fleeing religious persecution so Sikhs are not being singled out. But ignorance about the faith and its adherents has made it harder for Sikhs.

So how could other British Sikhs help?

"Those supporting Afghani Sikhs need to show why they believe they are Sikhs. Also most Afghani Sikhs I've spoken to have had their education disrupted, so they should try and support them with this."

"Also," he added, "don’t discriminate (against Afghanis) based on language or background!"

A film on Afghan Sikhs coming to Britain
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