In India’s Rohingya refugee camps, fears of Covid-19

camps Thousands of Rohingya refugees in the National Capital Region of Delhi are at high risk for contracting Covid-19, as they live in cramped habitations and have limited access to public healthcare, activists say.

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Three weeks after the Centre announced a country-wide lockdown and over 14,000 people tested positive for Covid-19, the Ministry of Home Affairs reportedly directed all states and Union Territories to screen Rohingya refugees as some may have attended last month’s Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi’s Nizamuddin, which later emerged as a hotspot.

Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, also known as R4R, a non-governmental organisation working for Rohingya welfare across India, says the situation in camps across Delhi-NCR is precarious. “There have been no reported cases yet, but we have seen some showing symptoms like fever and cough in the Kalindi Kunj and Madanpur Khadar camps. For the Rohingya, social distancing and quarantine is a privilege that they can’t afford,” R4R said.

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“Think of Dharavi in Mumbai. That is how cramped these camps are. Two rooms are a luxury and it would be impossible to self-quarantine someone without infecting their whole family,” said Arshad Nihal of the Ubais Sainulabdeen Peace Foundation, an NGO working with the community. Living conditions in Dharavi’s slum cluster have, in fact, generated a Covid-19 hotspot, with 220 cases and 14 deaths as of April 24.

Other Rohingya refugee camps such as the ones in Faridabad and Haryana’s Nuh district are no different. The home ministry has reportedly said Tablighi Jamaat members had attended “ijtema” or congregation at Nuh, adding to the fear that the pandemic may spread in these camps too.However, Rohingya refugees associated with the Tablighi event in Delhi, Haryana and Jammu were already screened in the third week of March and have completed quarantine, according to community members in Delhi. “We know of 12 people altogether, who were screened and quarantined in March due to the Jamaat case,” said Sabber Kway Min, founder, R4R.

Rohingya refugees who had travelled back home to Jammu after the Tablighi event have also been screened already, said Abdul Rohim, a Jammu-based liaison for R4R, who also works with Save The Children, a UNHCR implementing partner. “Those who were quarantined here in Jammu have not shown any signs of the disease. So far, we have not seen any signs among other community members in Jammu, either.”

Although the government screening is a welcome move, the refugees fear targeting or a communalisation of the issue. “I am afraid that if any refugee gets the disease, they will say that the Rohingya brought the virus,” said Sabber.

The Rohingya, not formally recognised by the Indian government as refugees, have also had members of their community deported to Myanmar, where they are not recognised as citizens and suffer persecution.

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Little access to healthcare

Due to their stateless condition, Rohingya refugees struggle to access basic healthcare even under normal circumstances. In Nuh, camp residents said pregnant women received little prenatal care and 17% of deliveries in 2016 took place in the camp itself.

The narrative was similar in camps located in Faridabad – Budena Gaon and Mirzapur – where refugees referred to Safdarjung Hospital by the local Badshah Khan Hospital have no passage due to the lockdown. Here, too, all deliveries take place in the camp.

In Kalindi Kunj, the UNHCR conducts occasional medical camps and assists financially with any consultations at Safdarjung Hospital, which are reimbursed, residents told IndiaSpend. However, a prohibitively long waiting period often forces them to avail of expensive private doctors’ consultations. Residents also depend on medical supplies often given by the Jamia Hamdard and Alshifa hospitals in the vicinity.