Roshni Shanker and Prabhat Raghavan
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a serious economic impact on the global population, with many countries on the brink of collapse and people left scrambling for essential supplies. In India, fears about the impending crisis and its catastrophic effects, given India’s dense population and inadequate public healthcare facilities, led the Prime Minister to call for a complete lockdown from 25 March 2020 – with less than four hours’ notice. India’s lockdown is one of the world’s largest and strictest, and its impact has been devastating, particularly on more vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers and refugees who have lost their livelihoods and struggled to sustain themselves.
India hosts more than 200,000 refugees who live in densely populated urban settlements. They have limited access to mainstream services and support on account of their tenuous legal status and the rapidly deteriorating protection environment. India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, and has consistently chosen to not enact a national asylum framework. As such, it primarily relies on ad hoc executive orders/policies to manage and accord rights to different refugee groups. India in fact operates two different refugee protection frameworks – one for refugees from neighbouring countries (except Myanmar), who are accorded protection by the government, and another for refugees from Myanmar and non-neighbouring countries, who are managed by UNHCR. This has resulted in different groups of refugees having different documents and being accorded differential treatment. This article highlights some of the issues currently faced by refugees in India, based on our interactions with various community leaders and other relevant stakeholders.
Measures implemented by India with respect to refugees and migrants
To mitigate the impact of the pandemic, the Indian government has implemented a slew of measures, including declaring masks and sanitisers as essential commodities; stepping up its contact-tracing and testing efforts; permitting private labs to conduct testing; and announcing a relief package to address the immediate needs of the poor and others in need of urgent assistance.
Though the lockdown has affected almost all citizens to varying degrees, migrant workers have emerged as among the most impacted. Stranded in bigger cities with no livelihoods in the absence of economic activity, many were left with no choice but to attempt reverse migration. However, with fears of this exodus leading to the uncontrollable spread of the virus into the interior of the country, the government acted swiftly to curtail this, and most of those unable to return home were placed in temporary shelter facilities by various state governments in India. The central government also set up hunger centres and initiated a migrant mapping protocol to make relief measures accessible to them. More recently, the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of India has been invoked in matters relating to provision of basic amenities, payment of minimum wages to workers, and ensuring that people covered by the government’s flagship healthcare scheme were able to access free COVID-19 testing at private labs. However, despite all these measures, the plight of refugees remains the same, as they continue to be excluded from mainstream systems and do not have access to any of these benefits.
Problems faced by the refugee community
While the government has continued to issue advisories, very little has been done to address the concerns of refugees residing in India. Many such concerns stem from the lack of clarity surrounding refugees’ legal status and consequent lack of government documentation. This is why so many refugees are employed in the unorganised sector, yet the lockdown has meant that people working in this sector are no longer able to earn an income. This has deeply impacted those who live from daily wages and have no savings to stock up on essential goods.
Furthermore, the temporary suspension of UNHCR’s refugee status determination (RSD) activities during the lockdown has severely affected asylum seekers whose cases are still pending, as well as those who have not yet registered with UNHCR.
Restricted access to essential services has further aggravated the problems faced by refugee communities during this prolonged period of crisis. A major concern is the lack of access to public healthcare facilities, especially by pregnant women, the elderly, and those who require close monitoring following advanced medical procedures. While refugees are allowed to access the public healthcare system, hospitals are currently overburdened and unable to provide medical care in most non-coronavirus-related cases.
India has not taken any positive steps to extend the benefits of free COVID-19 testing or other government-implemented relief schemes to refugees. There has also been a rise in domestic violence, worsened by refugee women’s inability to access existing support systems. While the government has set up new helplines to extend assistance remotely, refugee women are typically reluctant to approach government authorities due to their ambiguous legal status and fear of reprisal within their communities.
To limit overcrowding in prisons, correctional / protection homes and detention centres, the Supreme Court directed state and union territory governments to establish committees to determine whether any prisoners, people on trial or ‘illegal immigrants’ (including refugees wrongfully detained for ‘illegal’ entry) could be released.
Another concern is the lack of viable financial aid available to refugee communities. With no relief provided under central or state-implemented relief packages or alternate-livelihood assistance measures, refugees are struggling to make ends meet. A significant number of families reliant upon remittances from relatives based outside of India have also not been able to access financial systems, mainly banks and money transfer facilities.
Further, various community leaders have expressed concerns about refugees’ inability to pay rent to their landlords due to loss of livelihoods. While state governments have issued various directions and advisories requesting landlords not to evict their tenants due to non-payment of rent – such as in New Delhi, where the state government has offered to cover the rent of those unable to meet their obligations – there continue to be reports of untimely evictions of refugees because such measures do not extend to them.
Refugee leaders have also reported issues specific to members of their community. For instance, Chin asylum seekers and refugees have been subjected to xenophobic behaviour by the local community while stepping out to purchase essentials. In particular, the Rohingya community, based out of camps, is highly dependent on civil society for sustenance, but has been unable to receive substantial assistance due to restricted access to their settlements.
Measures taken to address refugees’ concerns
UNHCR, through its implementing partners, has taken measures to mitigate the pandemic’s impact as much as possible. For example, to address food insecurity, UNHCR’s partner organisations are providing asylum seekers and refugees with basic rations which include essentials such as rice, lentils, oil, sugar, salt and soap. While this initiative has provided relief to a number of families who otherwise have no means of accessing support, it may be unsustainable given that the lockdown has been extended. Furthermore, food cannot be distributed in sealed-off ‘hotspots’where there are large numbers of COVID-19 cases.
UNHCR and its partners have also adopted measures to raise awareness about COVID-19 within refugee communities, including launching various social media campaigns and engaging refugee artisans to stitch masks. They continue to provide sustenance allowances to the most vulnerable and facilitate helpline numbers for asylum seekers and refugees who need to access assistance.
Given that RSD has been temporarily suspended, registered asylum seekers can contact UNHCR’s partner agencies for extensions of their Under Consideration Certificates (UCC), which acts as proof of the holder’s status as an asylum seeker before UNHCR and protects the person from deportation/detention during the pendency of his/her case. For those seeking registration as asylum seekers with UNHCR, the agency is currently scheduling registration interviews for the second half of the year. The information has been relayed to the community via digital means, including WhatsApp.
At present, India’s lockdown has been extended until 17 May. While a set of revised guidelines were issued in early May,setting out some easing of the previous versions of the lockdown, the continued lockdown has exacerbated fears of the entire refugee community about their on-going sustenance given their limited access to resources. It is essential that the Indian government establishes a well-functioning response mechanism, in consultation with UNHCR and other relevant stakeholders, to mobilise resources for the refugee population.
To date, there have not been any reports of refugees being infected with COVID-19 in India. However, once restrictions start to ease, it is essential that necessary preventive and precautionary measures are put in place. To achieve this, the government must make masks available across all refugee camps and settlements in India and provide free testing at private labs (where the rates are otherwise prohibitive). Refugees are an incredibly vulnerable population who need to be protected, for their own safety as much as for that of the community that hosts them. Their well-being is as important to public health as that of any other section of the population.
|Roshni Shanker is the Founder and Executive Director of the Migration and Asylum Project (MAP), a refugee law centre based in New Delhi, India|
|Prabhat Raghavan is a Legal Consultant at MAP.|
Read Kaldor Centre Director Jane McAdam introducing COVID-19 Watch with ‘The impacts of COVID-19 on the world’s displaced people: A watching brief’, and find all the analysis in COVID-19 Watch. Don’t miss any new posts, follow the Kaldor Centre on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and subscribe free to our Weekly News Roundup, delivered to your inbox every Monday.
Image source: Joseph Kiesecker/Flickr