Guest post by Vatsal Raj. Vatsal is a student of law at National Law University, Lucknow, India. Presently, he is working as the External Relations Associate at the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in India at New Delhi. Vatsal has a keen research interest in international human rights law with a special focus on developing inclusive refugee protection mechanisms. This post is part of our themed series on border control and Covid-19.

Introduction

One per cent of humanity is forcibly displaced and their prospects of leading a normal life are diminishing rapidly amidst the exclusionary fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. India, the largest COVID-19 lockdown in the world, is home to 244,094 refugees and asylum seekers. The pandemic is a human tragedy – one that has exposed pre-existing structural inequalities in India’s healthcare and socio-economic response systems. While the virus does not discriminate, its impacts do. This blog-post highlights the discernible pattern of disproportionate harm suffered by India’s ultra-vulnerable refugees and critically analyses the collaborative response measures adopted by the Government in close consultation with UNHCR to mitigate the exacerbated precarity of refugees.

© UNHCR/Alfa

Strategies for Counter-exclusion

The pandemic has dampened refugees’ perception of resilience by summarily eroding the community’s ability to prevent, absorb and recover from shocks. Refugees live in unsafe conditions and suffer from interlocking crises which exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and heighten their risk of infection and poverty in the absence of inclusive protection strategies. Refugees rarely feature as beneficiaries in national pandemic response plans, especially in a lower-middle income developing country such as India. The Government, on May 12 2020, announced a $260 billion fiscal package to deliver targeted benefits to its most severely affected citizens. However, the systemic social and financial exclusion of refugees at the hands of national response plans remained unaddressed due to India’s overburdened healthcare system and paucity of resources in the face of an unexpected crisis. In recent years, India’s welfare delivery system has witnessed rapid digitisation and is linked with the Aadhaar card, a 12 digit individual identification number issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India. Making Aadhaar a necessary precondition for accessing the welfare system, acts as another layer of exclusion; unlike Indian nationals, refugees are not covered by India’s expanding social protection system because they are rarely granted Aadhaar cards, owing to uncertain documentation requirements and status of residence.

India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, neither has it evolved a legislative definition of the term “refugee”. In the absence of a domestic legislation recognising their legal status, refugees and asylum seekers find themselves defenceless amidst the pandemic. To safeguard India’s most vulnerable, the Government must adopt a whole-of-society, human rights-based approach as espoused by the Global Humanitarian Response Plan and establish a comprehensive response mechanism in close consultation with UNHCR. The COVID-19 crisis represents an opportunity to address long-standing structural weaknesses and devise an inclusive crisis-resilient refugee management system by adopting a two-pronged counter-exclusion strategy – financial and socio-medical.

Financial Counter-Exclusion

“Even if I die, no one from my community would have the funds to arrange a burial for me”, declared a Rohingya refugee in a heart wrenching conversation with me.

Pandemic induced poverty has birthed an unmitigated socio-economic crisis within the refugee community. On account of their tenuous legal status and consequent lack of government documentation, refugees work in extremely exploitative and marginalised sectors of the informal economy. Rohingya and Afghan refugees employed outside of the formal labour market are the last hired and first fired in the Indian economy. Due to restricted livelihood opportunities, subsequent loss of income and meagre savings, some refugee communities are on the brink of starvation. Many Afghan women used to work as community restaurateurs and served food at minimal charge. Such businesses have been deemed non-essential and forced shut in the lockdown.  The closure of schools translates to lower earning trajectories and the suspension of school feeding programmes exacerbate children’s food insecurity.

While UNHCR India continues to distribute food packages and provide cash based assistance to the most vulnerable families, the demand for aid has long outpaced the resources available. Financial inclusion and not assistance, is the solution. UNHCR encourages refugee entrepreneurship as a catalyst for financial empowerment. Refugee-owned businesses not only create job opportunities, relevant to their community but also pave the way for future development. Refugee entrepreneurs often lack documents such as the Aadhaar card, required to open bank accounts and hence have no access to the formal credit system. UNHCR India must work in cohesion with the Government to provide financial literacy training and develop accessible financial services by encouraging community microfinance and savings programmes for refugees. The Government should acknowledge the exclusionary nature of the existing socio-economic support model and adhere to its commitment to inclusion by allowing greater flexibility to refugees in establishing their identity in order to gain access to financial safety nets. Together, UNHCR and the Government of India can devise a self-reliant system for the financial integration of refugees into the mainstream economy.

© UNHCR/Geórgia

Socio-Medical Counter-Exclusion

“I am not the virus!” exclaimed a Chin refugee while narrating a recent racist encounter he had within the host community.

The social impact of the outbreak has decreased social cohesion and deepened inequalities within the host community. Refugees are often viewed as carriers of the virus. As a result, they face obstacles in accessing basic healthcare, including language barriers and misinformation. The rise of the COVID-19 infodemic and the resulting stigma has created a social crisis within the refugee community. The healthcare and social crises are closely linked. The Government’s $2 billion package for the COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health System does not cover refugee communities. Life-saving drugs have been locked behind Aadhaar cards. Moreover, diagnostics centres have recently begun requesting proof of permanent residence for the purposes of contact tracing – something most refugees lack.

While everyone is scared of the virus, all cannot afford to protect themselves. For the 40,000 Rohingya refugees living in crowded camps across India, social distancing is an unattainable privilege. COVID-19 is sweeping through high-density and impoverished refugee settlements with restricted access to clean water, sanitation, and healthcare services. The risk of an uninhibited outbreak in refugee camps looms large, if even one infected refugee goes undetected. Women refugees have struggled to access healthcare even under normal circumstances. Recently, this has been compounded by travel restrictions constraining delivery of pre and postnatal care.

Refugees deserve a strong sense of protection by the State. Trust plays a critical role in enabling healthcare access within vulnerable communities. Refugee healthcare workers are serving bravely on the frontlines of UNHCR’s response and are striving to provide improved access to WASH items and deliver timely lifesaving interventions in emergency situations. UNHCR’s outreach efforts, aimed at cultivating social capital and disseminating reliable information through preferred communication and language channels, continue to support community healthcare workers. Everyone, without exception, has the right to health. If and when a vaccine becomes available, the Government must ensure that marginalised refugees are included in national immunisation programs. The Government must health-proof its refugee systems by creating a ‘firewall’ between life-saving medical intervention and immigration services.

Conclusion

Refugees are not the problem; they are a part of the solution. The pandemic has exposed the unsustainability of existing development pathways. To prevent an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe, the Government must pay heed to COVID-19’s exclusionary impact and regularise inclusive refugee pathways to build back better and humanise its most vulnerable population.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Raj, V. (2020). Covid-19 and Refugees in India: A Tale of Exclusion and Counter-Exclusion. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/07/covid-19-and-0 [date]