“Treat Us As Human Beings”: Refugees and Asylum Seekers Missing In India’s COVID-19 Response
11 July 2020 6:15 pm
On 18 June, in the midst of a global pandemic, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) published its latest Global Trends Report. It revealed that 1 in every 97 people in the world have been forcibly displaced from their homes due to war, natural disasters, persecution or other emergencies.
In India, very little is said about refugees in the national coverage of the pandemic. Even prior to the lockdown, India’s refugee population lived on the edges of society. The pandemic has only pushed this vulnerable group further into the margins as refugees and asylum seekers continue to be overlooked in India’s policy responses to COVID-19.
The Inconsistencies of India’s Stance on Welcoming Refugees
India has a rich culture of welcoming those who have been forced to flee. As of January 2020, from Rohingya refugees to Sri-lankan tamils, the total number of refugees in India, is 210,201. Despite which, India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees. This status has permitted India to cherrypick in welcoming certain groups of refugees and turning away others.
This has resulted in a patchwork policy where certain refugee groups from certain countries are under the purview of the Government of India and other refugee groups by default fall under the protection mandate of the UNHCR. This disparity in who handles refugees in India has resulted in an incongruity in the accessibility to documentation and essential services by different refugees groups across the country.
This inconsistency in documentation has forced refugees in India to get by one day at a time over the years as it is still much safer for them to live a life of uncertainty in India than to return to a country where they face immediate threats to their very existence.
The Obstacle Course for Access to Healthcare Prior to COVID-19
Under ordinary circumstances, refugees are a vulnerable population and are entitled to the Long-Term Visa issued by the Indian Government, but many have faced problems in actually securing such visas in India.
The communities protected by UNHCR are issued documentation from the agency. However, it is an identity document that is not officially recognised by the Government and not many law-enforcement agencies and authorities are aware of it or accept it as a valid proof of identification.
“Some refugees have valid documents from their home country, but eventually they expire. That is because we have fled our country and cannot go to its embassy in India and renew these documents since we may be in danger of being targeted,” Laleh*, an Iranian refugee told Amnesty International India.
Other refugees have fled without the possibility of collecting identity documents from their home or have never been issued documents by their government. Considering such rampant lack of ‘official’ documentation, refugees’ access to health services varies on a case by case basis.
Theoretically, refugees should be able to approach government hospitals for free medical treatment and other health services. However, people have been turned away because of lack of accepted documentation. Refugees depend on the UNHCR and its partner organizations to survive in India.
“There is a private clinic near one of the Rohingya settlements in Delhi, but once the doctor there found out that we were Rohingyas, he refused to treat us since we were not Indian citizens,” said Hamid*, a Rohingya student living in Delhi.
Aside from whether hospitals and clinics are accessible to the community, refugees face other additional hurdles when it comes to healthcare. One of them is lack of resources.
Speaking to Amnesty International India, Fariba*, an Afghan community leader told Amnesty International India, “Yes, to an extent we can access medical services at bigger government hospitals, but just travelling to and from the hospital can cost INR 300-400 (USD 5-6). It is not feasible for us, we do not earn enough money to be able to do that”.
Language is another main barrier for many, and the lack of interpreters hampers the ability of many to seek medical assistance. Mostly, the community relies on the UNHCR and its partner organizations to provide generic versions of medicines and also to step in when cases are vulnerable or in need of urgent medical attention.
Discriminated and Alienated: the Dwindling Access to Health Services for Refugees During Lockdown
Since the nationwide lockdown in India that was imposed on 24 March 2020, which has only just begun to ease up, the tenuous situation of refugees and their access to health services in India has been exacerbated.
As a community representative for the Burmese Chin refugees told Amnesty International India, “Everyone is struggling right now but our problems have doubled.”
Primarily, fear is prevalent amongst many refugees and many try not to step out as much as possible. This is not only to prevent the exposure to the virus but also to avoid the increasing hostilities certain refugee communities have faced during the lockdown.
As COVID-19 unfolded in India, Rohingya refugees were falsely associated with the members of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic committee who were falsely denounced as the “super spreader” of COVID-19 in India. This resulted in groups trying to attack Rohingya camps in New Delhi.
“Certain media channels have tried to manipulate the situation to blame us for the spread of COVID-19. We live in a constant fear that we will be attacked,” said Javid*, the spokesperson of the Rohingya-led human rights collective in Delhi.
There have also been reports of Chin refugees facing xenophobia and discrimination in India.
“We have seen reports of physical attacks and discrimination that Indian citizens from the the north-eastern part of India have been facing in this pandemic. We look very similar to them. Our community leaders had to make sure that everyone takes added precautions when leaving their homes because we may face such attacks too,” added Sui Mawi*, a Burmese Chin student who lives in Delhi.
David*, a community leader for the Congolese refugees in Delhi shared the same fear.
“As refugees from Africa, we faced racism and discrimination in hospitals even before the lockdown and it has just gotten worse now. Even though the virus originated in China, doctors have refused to check on us because they think we have the virus since we are foreigners,” he said.
Since many refugees do not have access to documentation from the government, they are forced to earn their livelihood through the insecure and sloppily regulated informal sector. The lockdown which resulted in massive loss of jobs adversely affected the refugee communities in India. Without financial means or savings to rely on, refugees are unable to fully access the essential sanitation and hygiene facilities needed to protect themselves from COVID-19.
Many refugees have also experienced trauma and violence which has resulted in the need for lifelong treatment. For those who needed to go to the hospital for treatments such as dialysis, there was no transport available for the initial months of the lockdown. If found outside of their homes, they were subjected to harassment by the police who were given sweeping powers during the lockdown.
“I know English, so I can explain my situation, but other people in my community only speak Somali, they cannot communicate with the police and explain them the reason for being outside. But they need their treatment, it is urgent for them,” Mohammad Abdi*, a Somali refugee who works as a translator, told Amnesty International India.
Having lived through situations of conflict and experience painful incidents, many refugees are also coping with the trauma attached to this along with adjusting to life in a foreign country. “It will definitely have repercussions on our mental health,” said Sayed*, an Afghan refugee who fled Afghanistan seven years ago with his mother and sister.
Protection for Refugees in the Courts
While India is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, the courts have protected the rights of refugees time and again. Courts across the country have protected the rights of asylum seekers to go through refugee status determination processes. They have also upheld the principle of non-refoulement in international refugee law, which states that a person must not be forced to return to a place where they may face persecution. The courts have also upheld their rights to fair treatment.
Most notably in 2018, the Supreme Court of India ordered the appointment of nodal officers to ensure that Rohingya refugee children in New Delhi and Haryana were able to access health and education facilities.
Therefore, it is vital that the government considers all those living in the country when creating policy responses to the COVID-19. Even though refugees are one of the groups that are most in need of assistance, they have been completely overlooked.
“What we need from Indians and the Government is empathy. Understand the context that we have come from and the circumstances we are living in. What people do not understand is that ‘refugee’ is a word of peace. All the things that we are accused of – war, terrorism, torture – these are things that we have run away from to be safe. We are also suffering with you in this pandemic, treat us as human beings,” said Javid*.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Written By Nayantara Raja of Amnesty International India.