NEW DELHI: With no money for treatment and no documents that will enable them to get vaccinated or tested, they are the Rohingyas, the nowhere people fending for themselves as a continuing pandemic pushes them further into the shadows of a city they call home.
The helplessness in the face of COVID-19 plays out in southeast Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar, one of the several camps in the city for Rohingya Muslims where the refugees battle it out on their own without access to testing centres, vaccines or doctors.
The government has eased testing and vaccine guidelines even for those who don’t have the requisite documentation, but many refugees said it hasn’t made a tangible difference at the ground level.
The Madanpur Khadar camp is home to about 270 Rohingya Muslims, who fled their homes in Myanmar to escape persecution.
Many of those living in the slum cluster said they have learnt to battle symptoms on their own depending on home remedies such as saltwater gargles and withdrawing indoors into their cramped tenements to quarantine when they think it has gotten worse.
Among those showing symptoms is Amir*, a young daily wager who has been gargling with hot water four times a day to make his cough go away.
It is helping somewhat but he doesn’t know what he will do if the situation aggravates.
He doesn’t have an Aadhaar card or any other document, and neither do his neighbours.
“What can we do? We can’t get tests done, we can’t get vaccinated. For everything you need government documents which we don’t have,” he said.
“There are around 20-25 people right now who are displaying Covid symptoms. We are treating ourselves at home. Going to hospital is not even an option as we do not have the necessary documents,” he said.
Last month, when the pandemic was at its peak, about 50-60 Rohingya refugees in the Madanpur Khadar camp displayed Covid symptoms.
It has now come down to about 20-25, the residents said.
According to NGOs, there are around 40,000 Rohingyas living in India.
There are about 900 Rohingyas living in Delhi in camps in Madanpur Khadar, Kalindi Kunj and Shaheen Bagh.
Naseer* lost his wife six months ago.
He thinks it was COVID-19 but can’t be sure even though he somehow managed to take her to hospital.
“My wife died after suffering from Covid like symptoms. I had taken my wife to hospital but she passed away before she could get treated,” he said, adding that an ID card issued to him by the UN helped him access a hospital.
Many others are scared of doing so because they fear they will be deported if identified as refugees.
“People feel if they go to hospital they will be identified as outsiders,” said the father of two.
Naseer*, who runs a small grocery shop in the neighbourhood, also said people get scared when they have symptoms.
“They quarantine themselves, drink hot water and add lime to it, eat onions.
Many of them have breathing difficulties and fever and cold and cough.
Many people don’t even want to talk about it,” he said.
While untreated COVID-19 poses a risk not just for individuals but the community, it is not just about health for Rohingya Muslim refugees.
“Most of us work in the informal sector and have lost our jobs in this lockdown. The last one-and-a-half years have been tough. We have not been able to get employment and those who are working are also putting their lives at risk,” Naseer* said.
The majority of those in the Madanpur Khadar settlement and others work as daily wage and contract labourers, ragpickers and other odd jobs.
Both Naseer* and Amir* came to India in 2012 to looking for a better life and to escape the brutalities faced by the Rohingyas in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
The Rohingya Muslims are the most persecuted minority in the world, the UN has said.
According to NGOs, there are about 40,000 Rohingyas in India.
Of these, about 900 live in Delhi in camps in Madanpur Khadar, Kalindi Kunj and Shaheen Bagh.
A representative of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative said health facilities have always be a problem for the Rohingya refugees.
“Rohingyas are more exposed because of the congested areas they live in” it’s not just about coronavirus but other diseases as well.
Recently, several cases of diarrhoea were seen among children in the camp,” he said.
“We have identified such cases where symptoms of coronavirus are being seen. But without the requisite documents, treatment has been an issue and getting them vaccinated is a very big concern,” he said, asking not to be identified.
He said no deaths due to the disease have been reported yet in Madanpur Khadar.
According to recent guidelines by the Health ministry, those without ID cards will also be covered in the Covid vaccination drive through special sessions.
However, it is not clear whether the list includes refugees.
The list includes nomads (including sadhu/saints from various religions), prison inmates, inmates in mental health Institutions, citizens in old age homes, roadside beggars, people in rehabilitation centres/camps and any other identified eligible persons, aged 18 years or more.
The Centre has asked state governments to form district-level task forces to identify those who don’t have any of the seven prescribed photo ID cards.
A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson said inclusion in health responses, vaccines to social safety nets is key to protecting refugees and their hosts from the COVID-19 virus.
“The UNHCR welcome the SOP issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare for COVID-19 vaccination of persons without prescribed identity cards.
This will provide an opportunity for vulnerable groups including refugees and asylum seekers to access vaccines.
Safeguarding their health also protects the health of their host communities and members of society, the spokesperson told PTI in a written response.
Rohingyas have been displaced by waves of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar has denied citizenship to Rohingyas since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless.
Myanmar does not recognise Rohingyas as an indigenous ethnic group and insists they are Bangladeshi migrants living illegally in the country.
Thousands of them have fled Myanmar to take refuge in neighbouring countries, including India.
(*names have been changed to protect identities)