Blog post by Mudasir Amin, a PhD candidate at department of Social Work Jamia Millia Islamia. As a public policy fellow at the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy he worked on a detailed policy report on Rohingya in India. 

“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,” reads a handout internally circulated by young volunteers of the Rohingya refugee community in India as they try to cater to their needs in the time of the corona pandemic induced lockdown across the country. This thousand-rupee kit per family is what some of the ‘fortunate’ Rohingya families are sustaining themselves on, provided by young members of their own community who were able to raise some money with the help of individual contributions and small community-based NGOs. According to these volunteers, this assistance has reached 315 families in Delhi, 130 in Uttar Pradesh, 42 in Punjab, 80 in Rajasthan and 42 families in Haryana. There are 400 families in Haryana, 1500 in Jammu and 1600 in Hyderabad who these volunteers are finding difficult to reach; nonetheless the attempts are ongoing.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has rendered millions around the globe vulnerable, it has also exposed multiple fault-lines in terms of healthcare infrastructure and investment, accessibility along divisions like caste and class, and the utter desperation of the already marginalized. In this context, refugees across the world are among the most vulnerable groups, especially as this renders them further invisible at a time when states are engaged in securing public health and hygiene for their citizens. The healthcare infrastructure is already overwhelmed in the midst of this crisis, even in countries with the best facilities in the world, so where does that leave refugees who neither have a home to go to nor a state to demand rights from? As people who have been left stateless, dehumanized, traumatized in a generally unwelcome global order, a crisis like this increases the dread of disposability that refugee lives are generally seen to embody.

There have been preparedness and response plans by World Health Organization (WHO) and other UN agencies for the ‘hotspots’ of stateless people like Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh that houses Rohingya refugees. There have also been efforts by governments like Portugal and Malaysia for providing assistance to the most vulnerable stateless people as the situation demands unique and extra-ordinary measures. What is worrying, however, is that a small population of Rohingya refugees currently settled in different states of India has been completely ignored. In recent times the Rohingya in India have been hyper-visiblised owing to a vicious campaign by the Hindu nationalist government led by BJP, and put under massive surveillance. Labelling them a threat to the sovereignty and security of the nation, the present Indian government has issued circulars for their forced deportation that stands challenged in the Supreme Court of India. However, the top court has not been able to stop deportation of dozens that were expelled by the authorities in 2019. A systematic eviction campaign in Hindu-dominated Jammu region saw them being referred to as ‘ticking time bomb’ with ‘catch and kill’ posters surfacing against them.

Amidst such a scenario with a Hindu majoritarian government on one side and a public opinion where they are framed as a potential terror threat, it has already been hard for the community to find safety and security while living in India. They live in small slum-like settlements in ramshackle huts with no or little access to proper hygiene and sanitation facilities. In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic in India the number of positive cases in India is witnessing a surge that has already passed 3000 with more than 50 deaths. Some epidemiological experts have predicted ‘mind-blowingly large numbers’ to be affected in the coming weeks that gets worsened by the ill-equipped healthcare (beds/ICUs/ventilators per million). The total lockdown in India has forced thousands of its own citizens, working in the metropolitan cities across the country, to walk back to their homes on foot causing immense suffering with little protection and social security, some of them have even died. Social distancing for them is something unaffordable. Such a scenario does not bode well for Rohingyas mainly for two reasons. Firstly, being non-citizens seen illegally living in the country, and secondly due to the bio-politics, xenophobia and to a large extent Islamophobia (as I have argued elsewhere), this community is likely to receive little preference in terms of protection and access to healthcare amidst them being imagined as the other, devoid of rights.

Majority of these refugees living in different settlements across Delhi, Jammu, Hyderabad, Haryana, Rajasthan make their living through menial jobs at malls, in railway construction, factories and can be seen collecting from different neighbourhoods while some of them also work as domestic help. With the lockdown and social distancing rules in place in the wake of coronavirus, all these avenues are gone. They are left jobless without any social security or welfare measures afforded to them by the government. Most of the social protection packages announced by governments to feed and pay their working class daily wagers have no provisions for non-citizens. Statelessness often deprives people of basic rights like healthcare, education, housing and jobs and now in this pandemic crisis they are again at the margins cramped in crowded campsites waiting for disasters to explode. The Indian government announced a relief package of 1.7 lakh crore INR for migrant workers, frontline health workers and other sections who will bear the brunt of the ongoing lockdown. It remains unclear whether this package includes non-citizen Rohingyas. There has been no word on this till now. Similarly, the Delhi government’s alternative livelihood assistance of 5000 INR for migrant workers in all its probabilities overlooks these forgotten people.

In the settlements Rohingya face numerous health hazards owing to their proximity with the medical and other wastes that becomes more dangerous in the contagion of Covid-19. Reports have shown how these people are living besides heaps of medical waste that includes among other things used surgical masks and gloves. But these people are less worried about the debilitating effects of the virus and fear hunger the most. However, in India where the far-right dispensation is forcefully trying to deport these persecuted people in violation of international conventions and its own laws, there are less hopes of them being a saviour of the same people and offer any help in the current crisis. 

Fortunately, as of now, there have been no reported cases of the virus from the Rohingya community in India. However, seeing the spread and its potential to impact people especially in slums where it can spread quicker, coupled with the way the pandemic has been communalised in India targeting Muslims, Rohingya Muslims could be the next potential label of ‘corona bombs’ amidst rising Islamophobia. Their campsites deserve extra protection and care. Not only must local civil society groups and NGOs offer support, but they must also press on the government to come to the aid of these people. If the lockdown gets stricter and number of infected and fatalities soar, it will be hard for these local groups to reach out.

When the fight against a virus has shattered lives across countries, one asks, how much of an invisibilisation must a refugee suffer before being seen as deserving of the right to have rights – as basic as life and dignity?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.