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Covid-19 pushes refugees in India to the brink

Rohingyas, who left their homes to flee the discriminatory policies of Myanmar government, are dependent on free food packages given by UNHCR and NGOs in India. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)Premium
Rohingyas, who left their homes to flee the discriminatory policies of Myanmar government, are dependent on free food packages given by UNHCR and NGOs in India. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

The country’s most vulnerable are dealing with the growing burden of rent, lack of savings, absence of job opportunities and healthcare facilities, increasing racial discrimination and the fear of contracting the virus

It’s a smell that’s stayed with her for over a decade. Awi S. Duhlian, her mother and two younger sisters spent two nights on the floor outside the bathroom of a train to Coimbatore from Delhi, covering their noses in a vain attempt to keep out the stench. “I still remember how that bathroom smell didn’t let me sleep. That smell is still stuck with me, I don’t know why," says Duhlian, now 21, a Chin from Myanmar’s minority Christian community and a refugee in Delhi.

They’d crossed the Myanmar-India border via Mizoram and were headed to meet fellow Chins in Coimbatore. Since then, Duhlian’s life has been filled with more questions than answers: Where did her father vanish that windy night in 2009 in Myanmar after helping his family climb aboard a crowded truck to escape the army? Why did their mother abandon them in 2018, after Duhlian completed her schooling? Why was she the only one to get a pink slip in her call centre office when India went into lockdown in March because of the virus that has wreaked havoc across the world after originating in China? Why have people started calling her and her sisters “coronavirus"?

“Our neighbours say things like, ‘Go back, chinki coronavirus’. Go where? There’s no home for us," she says. Since 2018, the three sisters have been living in a 150 sq.ft room in west Delhi, with a majority of the 4,000 Chins who fled to India to escape persecution in Myanmar. Like most Chins, Duhlian has been doing odd jobs to feed her family and pay the rent. Six months ago, she had landed a call centre job that didn’t require her to have a legal work permit. “I was happy. At least I could send my sisters to school in a rickshaw instead of on foot," she says. But she lost her job as soon as the lockdown started and hasn’t paid been able to pay the rent since. Many Chins, including her, are surviving on food rations from their church and NGOs. “The landlord keeps saying he will evict us. I don’t know how long we can live like this. Finding a job again is not easy, especially since I don’t have a work visa," says Duhlian, with a forced smile.

For close to seven months, people across the world have been living a present paused by a virus, facing an uncertain future. But for the 200,000 refugees that India hosts from Somalia, Afghanistan, Myanmar and other countries, uncertainty has been a shadow since the day they landed here in search of a better life. No refugee in India can work legally till they obtain a work visa, a tedious process that can take months.

Less than 10% of refugees in the country have work visas, informs Fazal Abdali, senior legal consultant at legal non-profit Human Rights Law Network. Most end up working in the informal sector as labourers if uneducated, or as translators and guides at tourist sites if they know more than two languages. Most of these jobs have been lost to the pandemic. The burden of rent, lack of savings, absence of job opportunities, increasing racial discrimination and the fear of contracting the virus are pushing refugees to breaking point. None of the social protection packages offered by the government for daily wagers has provisions for non-citizens.

In his policy briefing on the pandemic in June, UN secretary-general António Guterres admitted that more than 70 million people globally are facing three crises rolled into one: a health crisis because they live in crowded, often unsanitary conditions; a socio-economic crisis; and lack of protection. “At the same time, fear of covid-19 has led to skyrocketing xenophobia, racism and stigmatization," he said.

Mohammed Hafes, 25, is tired of being dependent on others. He came to India with the help of his grandmother in 2008, soon after his father was killed and mother kidnapped by a militant group in Somalia. With the support of the Somali community, Hafes found rented accommodation in south Delhi, learnt photography and filmmaking, and made documentaries on Africans living in India at the nearby studio of Khoj International Artists’ Association. Hafes, who’s fluent in Hindi, Urdu, English and Arabic, besides Somali, also used to do translation work. A year ago, he found a job at a local printing shop but lost it months later because a neighbour reported him to the police for working without a work permit. “This is my age to work. I don’t want to be dependent on others. People near my house call me ‘hapshi’, ‘kallu’, they curse me, they tell me to go back," says Hafes. He wants to do an MBA so that he can fulfil his dream of being a businessman.

For Ali, Hafes’ neighbour and a Somali refugee, dreams are a “luxury" he can’t afford anymore. “I just need the fundamental right to live my life with dignity. I hold a PhD but I can’t work because I don’t have the work visa. We don’t have any support from UNHCR," says Ali, 40, who used to teach geography and history in a secondary school before fleeing Somalia 14 years ago. Like Hafes, he too survived by working as a translator and guide.

Since the virus outbreak started in India, UNHCR has been providing dry rations, and paying a monthly sustainable allowance to the elderly, disabled, women at-risk and those in need of medical help. Till date, they have given 10,820 food packages to refugee and asylum seeker families.“We are particularly concerned about the socio-economic consequences of covid-19 on refugees and host communities. UNHCR and partners are working hard to help mitigate the impact but need more support," says UNHCR India spokesperson Kiri Atri, who’s assistant external relations officer with the UN agency.

Afghan refugee Noor Nizame hasn’t been to his house in Delhi, where he stays with his parents, two younger sisters and brother, for the past two days because he owes the landlord rent for five months. Before the lockdown, Nizame, 27, used to work as a translator for Afghans who came to a nearby private hospital for treatment.

“I used to get make enough for my family but since March, there’s been no work," says Nizame, who’s been the sole earner since his father was bedridden after a stroke a year ago. There are days they eat just one meal. “My mother is diabetic, sister is suffering from depression, father needs his medicine. How will I feed them? There’s no free ration, no income, no (work) visa, no job," says Nizame, who has been sleeping on a park bench away from home.

The government needs to have some concrete policies that allow refugees to work, insists Abdali, the Human Rights Law Network lawyer. “There is no municipal law on refugees, leaving them at the mercy of the state. None of the laws talk about them. Why should they be a burden on the state? Everyone should have a right to life. And refugees themselves don’t want to be dependent on others. They want to work," he explains.

Not having a work visa is not the only hurdle to landing a job. Since the lockdown restrictions were eased in Delhi, construction work has started, but many of the 18,000 Rohingyas in India who used to work as daily labourers are confined to their tarpaulin shelters. Mohammed Shakir is one of them. “The moment they learn I am a Rohingya, they say I’m a ‘corona bomb’ and refuse to give me work," says the 27-year-old, referring to a report that linked the Rohingya Muslims with the Tablighi Jamaat, an evangelical sect whose headquarters in Delhi’s Nizammuddin area emerged as one of India’s first covid-19 hotspots in March.

At present, the Rohingyas, who left their homes to flee the discriminatory policies of Myanmar government, are dependent on the free rations given by UNHCR and NGOs. “We have enough food but how long can we stay inside a small tent with no work, no money," asks Shakir, who lives with his wife and year-old child.

The other problem is the lack of help to local communities who coexist with the refugees. Often, the relief work is restricted to the Rohingyas, leaving other migrant populations feeling neglected. Rama, a migrant from Odisha, has got free food packages only twice since March. “Everyone goes straight to the Rohingyas. Nobody comes to us," complains Rama, 50, who used to work at a construction site before March. Her neighbours, Rohingyas, have been helping her with food.

For a peaceful co-existence, it’s important to sensitize the local communities who stay with refugees, says Abdali. “Otherwise, there will be animosity between the two. They need to be informed of how vulnerable the refugees are."

Duhlian has stopped trying to explain to her neighbours that she’s not from China. Every time she steps out, someone calls her “coronavirus". “I don’t why they keep saying it. I have explained them so many times. This helplessness is stuck with me like that bathroom smell."

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