COVID-19: Rohingya Refugees in India Are Battling Islamophobia and Starvation

The refugees will not be covered under the relief measures announced by governments and their settlements are prone to outbreaks if even a single person is infected.

Nearly all Rohingya refugees living in various refugee camps across the country have been left to fight the coronavirus pandemic on their own. The strict lockdown for India’s 1.3 billon people to prevent the spread of the virus has turned into a human tragedy for many, particularly the migrant workers, daily wage earners, street vendors and several others whose survival depends on their daily earnings. Most of the social protection packages announced by governments to feed and pay the working class daily wagers have no provisions for non-citizens. Even the Delhi government’s alternative livelihood assistance of Rs 5,000 for migrant workers does not include the Rohingya who are seen as ‘illegal migrants’. As a result, 18,000 Rohingya refugees living in India are facing a very uncertain future and situation of starvation.

Vilified as ‘Corona Bomb’

In recent times, Rohingya refugees have become highly visible due to the vicious campaign launched by the BJP and its Hindu right wing partners calling the Muslims “Corona Bomb”. This started after TV9 Bharatvarsh, a free to air TV news channel, began broadcasting a so-called investigative report linking the Rohingya refugees with the Tablighi Jamaat congregation at the Markaz mosque in Nizamuddin during the month of March. The report claims that several Rohingya refugees were deliberately infected with COVID-19 at the Markaz and then sent out to different parts of India to spread the infection on a large scale. Since its broadcast, video clips of this so-called investigative report have gone viral on social media, particularly on tweets with the hashtag #CoronaJihad and #biojihad. According to Time magazine, Equality Labs, a digital human rights group has said that these tweets have appeared nearly 300,000 times and have been seen by approximately 165 million people on Twitter

After  the broadcast by the TV channel claiming that some Rohingya refugees had attended the Tablighi Jamaat congregation, the Union home ministry on April 15 wrote to all states and union territories that, “Rohingya Muslims attended ijtemas and other religious congregations of Tablighi Jamaat and there is a possibility of their contracting COVID -19.” The letter directed the police chiefs of the states and union territories to track down and screen Rohingya Muslim refugees. However, the letter does not specify the period when the Rohingya Muslims had visited Nizamuddin Markaz and whether there were any Rohingya Muslim participants in the Tablighi Jamaat congregation that was held in the month of March in Markaz.

A woman from the Rohingya community walks through a camp in Delhi, August 17, 2017. Photo: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton/Files

Rohingyas left out of safety-net

Unfortunately, despite an April 17 Delhi government order that all the inmates of Rohingya refugee camps should be tested, no such tests have been done till date. This behaviour of the local administration is not only ill-advised but dangerous. It reduces the effectiveness of the efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Even if a single Rohingya refugee in the Madanpur Khadar camp is infected and remains undetected due to the negligence of the local administration, there is a serious risk of large scale coronavirus outbreak. And, if that happens, the contagion will spread to several other communities living in and around that area.

While everyone is scared of being infected by the virus and are taking precautions – maintaining social distance, wearing face masks, washing hands and feet with soap – the Rohingya refugees unfortunately cannot take any of these preventive measures to protect themselves as it is impossible for people living in makeshift shanties that lean on each other with poor sanitation and virtually no access to healthcare. For them, soap is a luxury, let alone buying facemasks and sanitizer. Jaffar Ullah, who teaches young Rohingya girls and boys to operate a computer run by the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, lives in one of the shanties in Madanpur Khadar, near Sarita Vihar in South Delhi. He finished his last bar of soap in the third week of March. On March 31, he told Al Jazeera, “Only a few families have soaps in our slum, while most of them can’t afford to buy one.” He also pointed out that while the local municipal workers sprayed disinfectants in nearby residential areas, they did not do so in the slums.

The Rohingya refugees did not fall out of the government’s healthcare and food support programmes during the lockdown period by mistake. They were deliberately overlooked as the Rohingya Muslim refugees have been identified by the Hindu majoritarian government as a ‘potential threat’ to India’s national security and marked for deportation.

The UNHCR which has the mandate for the protection of refugees, was apparently not aware of the dire situation of the Rohingya. However, after being informed by several NGOs, UNHCR’s New Delhi office has swung into action and the Indian office has organised organise various COVID-19-related awareness programmes in the slums over the past few weeks. It seems that the UNHCR has asked its NGO partners to distribute hygiene kits containing soaps. However, face masks are yet to be given.

In an email response, the UNHCR’s Delhi office has said, that the UNHCR and its partners have conducted sensitisation and mass information campaigns on COVID-19 prevention and response for refugees and asylum-seekers across India.  This included health and hygienic messaging in different languages (including Rohingya language) through various media platforms. This was largely to ensure that refugees receive reliable and actionable information that could help them protect themselves from this unfolding crisis. Pointing out that the UNHCR operation in India is not designed to provide emergency humanitarian assistance to a large number of refugees and asylum-seekers, the e-mail claims that UNHCR in India, through its partners, has distributed food ration and hygiene items, such as soap, directly to 3,715 Rohingya families in different parts of the country.

Laudable as these efforts of the UNHCR are, it is important to remember that in the densely packed refugee camps in Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Telangana and elsewhere, the options for social distancing or self-isolation are remote, with many refugees living in cramped conditions in makeshift shelters. Even simple hygiene practices such as regular handwashing become complicated feats of logistical planning when access to clean water is severely limited. The most urgent need for the Rohingya is access to food. The UNHCR needs to reassess its policy and focus on humanitarian aid urgently.

Situation in different refugee camps

In India, Rohingyas fear the religious polarisation and campaign of hate that is likely to emerge if they catch the disease. There are 250 Rohingya families living in a camp in Nuh in Haryana, which is about 100 km from Delhi. The good news, so far is that the district administration of Nuh has not found any infected person in the camp, but the adjoining areas have reported 48 cases. The bad news is that since the district of Nuh is under severe lockdown after it was declared as a COVID-19 red zone, voluntary groups have not been able to deliver food and essentials.

The simple fact is that the community at present is facing starvation as they are unable to go out and work to earn a living. With no work and no savings, they are left dependent on NGOs and benevolent locals who extend charity to them in these times of need.

Nearly 1,500 Rohingya families living in Jammu, who rely on walnut factories for work, are also running short on grains. Abdul Rahim who is a ‘community head worker’ for Save the Children, a partner of UNHCR in India, told the Anadolu Agency that malnourishment of children was already a severe problem in his community. The camp houses over 7,600 people. Because of the lockdown, they are unable to get proper food. This is taking the worst toll on women and children. Although nearby areas in Jammu have so far reported 20 cases, none are from the refugee camp in Jammu till date. Refugees say that it is a matter of days before they will have to sleep with empty stomachs. As Hafiz Mubashar, a Rohingya refugee living in Jammu told Al Jazeera, “We are struggling with both hunger and coronavirus at the same time, but I think hunger will kill us before the virus does.”

A Rohingya Muslim man prepares to walk through a full-body sanitization tunnel installed at COVID-19 dedicated Government Medical College hospital, in Jammu, Sunday, April 19, 2020. Photo: PTI

Rohingyas mobilising relief

The young volunteers of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative belonging to the refugee community are trying their best cater to their needs in the time of the pandemic induced lockdown across the country. They have put together a kit containing five kilograms of rice and flour, one litre oil, a kilo of sugar and dal and few basic spices for one family. This group has been able to distribute about 468 such kits to Rohingya refugee families as well about 30 families of migrant workers who live in the same camp with the Rohingyas in Jammu, Delhi, Haryana and Hyderabad.

In Delhi’s Khajuri Khas, the New Trade Union Initiative has come forward with funds for food and rations. In Punjab’s Dera Bassi, about 80 families of Rohingya refugees who worked in the local in abattoirs, which are now shut, are being looked after by a local peasant’s organisation. The Salamah Trust of Hyderabad, Delhi based NGO DAJI and several individuals from across the country have contributed generously to the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative. In addition, rations have been distributed in some camps by the UNHCR and its partner NGOs.

However, considering the manner in which the pandemic has been given a communal colour in the country, often led by senior members of the ruling BJP, Rohingya Muslims could be the next potential target. A TV channel and several social media messaging portals have already labelled the Rohingyas as the ‘Corona Bomb’. In the midst of rising Islamophobia, the campsites of the refugees deserve extra protection and care. There is an urgent need to test the Rohingya on a war footing.

Tapan Bose is citizen ambassador, Free Rohingya Coalition and former secretary general of South Asia Forum for Human Rights.