Life was already a struggle for many of the 40,276 refugees registered with UNHCR in India, but the coronavirus pandemic has made their survival even more precarious.
By Vatsal Raj in New Delhi, India | 01 July 2020
Nezamudden Linn, a 44-year-old Rohingya refugee who arrived in India from Myanmar in 2013 with his wife and three children, used to survive by doing translation work for a non-profit legal aid organization in New Delhi, the capital. He earned just enough to support his family until India’s country-wide lockdown began three months ago. Now, he is forced to load or unload goods for local grocery shops in exchange for food. “I can barely make ends meet,” he said. “Whatever little employment I had by way of part-time jobs has ceased.”
India began easing its lockdown earlier this month, but there has been a surge of new cases in recent days and most of the country’s refugees, who mainly survive on daily wage work in the informal sector, are still without an income.
Nezamudden acknowledges that he is better off than many others in the Rohingya community. He was able to sell a house in Myanmar to tide his family over. Others have little or no savings to fall back on and are more dependent than ever on aid from UN agencies, local NGOs and the Government of India.
“I can barely make ends meet. Whatever little employment I had by way of part-time jobs has ceased.”
The majority of refugees registered with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in India are from Myanmar (mostly Rohingyas) and Afghanistan, with smaller groups of asylum-seekers and refugees coming from Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and other African countries.
Food was the first and most pressing need at the start of the lockdown. Together with its local partner agencies, UNHCR reached nearly 9,000 refugee families with food packages in April and May while another 3,200 families received food from local authorities and NGOs.
As the crisis has impacted not just refugees, but the communities hosting them, UNHCR has also supported vulnerable local families with food and soap wherever possible. But funding for further life-saving assistance has dried up and UNHCR’s latest round of food packages only reached 930 of the most vulnerable families.
“The needs are huge, but we don’t have the funding to do more,” said Kiri Atri, Assistant External Relations Officer for UNHCR in India. “To continue life-saving activities, urgent funding is required to support vulnerable refugees, asylum-seekers and host communities with food rations, cash-support and sanitary napkins for women and girls.”
Atri said that with the monsoon and dengue season, those living in congested slum-like conditions would also need shelter repairs, mosquito nets and other essential support.
Nezamudden said the food he had received from UNHCR and its local partner, BOSCO, had been vital for his family’s survival, especially as the Rohingya community in Delhi were in no position to help one another. “Even if I die, no one from my community would have the funds to arrange a burial for me,” he said. “We are greatly impoverished.”
“Even if I die, no one from my community would have the funds to arrange a burial for me.”
The World Bank estimates that the coronavirus pandemic will push 71 million people worldwide into extreme poverty. Globally, the number of people facing acute food insecurity is also likely to double by the end of the year.
Besides food, the biggest concern for many refugees in India now is their inability to pay rent and the looming prospect of eviction.
“For most, whatever savings they might have had are exhausted now,” said Selin Mathews, an Associate Protection Officer with UNHCR. “We’ve been able to negotiate with landlords to buy them some time, but now we’re reaching a point where the landlords need the rent for their own survival.”She added that remittances from relatives living abroad have also slowed or stopped.
Aisha*, a 25-year-old refugee from Somalia, said her aunt, who lives in another country, used to send her US$200 per month, which helped to cover her basic needs. “Now, she herself is challenged with meeting her needs, and has stopped sending me money.”
Aisha said she has survived only through the kindness of a local shop owner who has allowed her to buy her usual groceries on credit. The financial stresses resulting from the lockdown are not the only issues refugees face. COVID-19 has sickened a number of refugees and asylum-seekers. Most have recovered but several are still receiving treatment in hospital and four have succumbed to the virus.
While refugees and asylum-seekers have access to healthcare, testing centres have recently begun requesting proof of address for the purposes of contact tracing – something that most refugees without formal rental agreements lack. Selin said UNHCR has been intervening with healthcare facilities in those cases to provide supporting letters.
She added that health advisories issued by the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization have been translated into the languages most refugees speak, “but it’s challenging because many of them live in slums [shacks] where it’s difficult for them to practice physical distancing.”
As the pandemic spreads, refugees in India are also taking part in the response, among them Hasibullah Parhiz. The 24-year-old Afghan refugee has helped distribute food rations and raise awareness about prevention measures in his community.
“I feel it is very important for a refugee to help other refugees,” said Hasibullah, who himself has been self-quarantining for the past 17 days after experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
With lockdown restrictions preventing UNHCR staff from being physically present in communities, Selin said UNHCR has been relying on community-based refugee volunteers like Hasibullah to distribute aid and monitor needs. She and her colleagues use messaging apps like WhatsApp to stay in regular contact with representatives from the various refugee communities, including those with specific needs such as people with disabilities or the elderly.
“Despite the lockdown and fear of infection, a lot of people have come together to support their communities,” she said. “The host communities are also standing in solidarity with them, now more than ever.”
You can donate to UNHCR's COVID-19 funding appeal here.
*Name changed for protection reasons