Srinagar: Nearly 24% of the inmates of Jammu and Kashmir’s detention centre for Rohingya people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past three days, triggering concerns about a serious outbreak at the centre.
Over 200 Rohingya are being detained at the holding centre at Hira Nagar of Jammu’s Kathua district since March 6 this year. “Fifty three Rohingya refugees have tested positive for COVID-19 here out of 218 samples collected,” Kathua’s chief medical officer, Dr Ashok Choudhary told The Wire.
The total number of refugees at the centre are 220, as on May 10.
The Hira Nagar block medical officer, Dr Swamy, said that the decision to conduct rapid antigen tests was taken after a few inmates were brought to the local sub-district hospital for treatment and displayed COVID-19 like symptoms.
“The 53 who have tested positive are isolated within the jail,” Swamy said.
The authorities running the centre refused to speak to The Wire on the matter. “You should talk to higher-ups on this,” said the superintendent of theHira Nagar holding centre, P.K. Modi.
Mushtaque Ahmad, a Rohingya leader in Jammu, said they were deeply worried.
“Those lodged in the centre are mostly elderly persons. We know that jails are overcrowded places, so this begs the question as to how social distancing can be maintained there. We appeal to the government of India and Jammu and Kashmir administration to release them on humanitarian grounds,” he said.
Ahmad said that Rohingya presence was forced to scatter after the government’s decision to detain over 200 of them.
“Some members of some families are in jail, and some others are outside. What is our crime? That we have nowhere to go? We came to save our lives in India but we never thought we would be thrown into a jail in a place like India where even animals have rights,” he said.
Ahmad said that pregnant women and children are also lodged in the centre.
Between 2007 to 2015, hundreds of Rohingya people arrived in Jammu after having escaped genocide in Myanmar.
According to rights groups, the Rohingya were subjected to summary executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, along with torture, ill-treatment and forced labour in Myanmar.
After their arrival in Jammu, most lived in makeshift huts and tents built on rented land and did menial jobs.
Several Rohingya were detained after J&K high court directed the administration of the Union Territory to spell out what measures it is taking to identify and act on “illegal immigrants.”
The court passed the directive on a petition filed by Hunar Gupta, who is affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
On March 5, the J&K home department identified the Hira Nagar sub-jail as a prison and re-notified it as a holding centre under the Foreigners Act.
“…[I]t shall be ensured that these persons are physically available at all times for their expeditious deportation as soon as travel documents are issued after due process of their nationality verification,” the notification reads.
On March 6, the Rohingya refugees were brought to Maulana Azam Stadium, reportedly for verification of documents and COVID- 19 tests, but were detained there and then lodged at Hira Nagar holding centre.
After their detention, the administration had labelled them “illegal immigrants” and said that they would be deported to Myanmar after verification of their nationality.
Several quarters have raised voices asking for at least the temporary release of the refugees under the Supreme Court’s directive for decongesting prisons in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak. A high-level committee to look into this was also constituted in 2020 by the J&K government following a Supreme Court directive.
In April 2020, the Supreme Court had directed the government to release “illegal foreigners” in Assam, who have been in detention for over two years, to avoid overcrowding in prisons.