Sriharsha Ravi Madichetty
2nd Year, BBALLB(Hons),
O.P. Jindal Global University
India is one of the densely populated countries in the world and every year many refugees from the neighboring countries of India like Myanmar, Bangladesh, etc. enter our country. These refugees generally settle in smaller towns and find work in metro cities and other major cities and end up becoming daily wage workers. Even under normal conditions, things were bad in respect to the lives of the refugees as daily wage workers, but an interesting turn of events took place as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic which made their situation worse and the pandemic turned out to be a nightmare for them.
As a result of the pandemic, the Indian government since mid-March 2020 has imposed a lockdown throughout the country making social distancing mandatory, restricting any gatherings in public places, and did not allow people to work to avoid the risk of infection. All the working population has been affected due to the lockdown but the worst affected are the daily wage workers whose life depends on those wages. Many of them lost their livelihoods and their lives became more miserable due to the pandemic. Lack of proper access to medical facilities in India made it a life-threatening situation for the refugees. There are about 40,276 registered refugees under UNHRC in India. Many of the refugees were stranded in big cities, with no work to do and being in a helpless condition where they could not go back to their homes. They could not go back to their own country either due to borders being sealed and no one was allowed to enter or leave the country due to the pandemic (Vijayaraghavan, 2020).
While the government has continued to issue advisories, very little has been done to address the concerns of refugees residing in India. Many such concerns stem from the lack of clarity surrounding refugees’ legal status and consequent lack of government documentation (Shanker & Raghavan, 2020). This is why so many refugees are employed in the unorganized sector, yet the lockdown has meant that people working in this sector are no longer able to earn an income. This has deeply impacted those who live from daily wages and have no savings to stock up on essential goods. Another major problem faced by the refugees is the fear of eviction. Since they do not have any income due to the pandemic, they are in no position to pay their rents to the landlords and would drag them on to the roads (Pullanoor, 2020). Few state governments like in new Delhi where the government has extended its assistance to the refugees by stating that they would cover rent expenses of these refugees and requested the landlord not to evict them during these hard times. The only other place they could rely on is the refugee camps where they get extended support from the government. But still, these camps have their problems like since the beginning of the lockdown there has been a surge in cases of domestic violence which made lives harder especially for women who are living in fears harder especially for women who are living in fear.
The UNHRC was able to provide minimal support to these refugees in partnership with other NGOs by providing food rations, etc. Food was the first and most pressing need at the start of the lockdown. In April and May 2020 UNHCR along with its local partners has started to reach out to local communities to distribute food packages and was able to cover 9,000 refugee families. In addition to this many NGOs and other local authorities were able to distribute food to about 3,200 families in April and May. The COVID-19 crisis was not only impacted by the refugees but also many other migrant workers and local families. So whenever possible UNHCR tried to support them with food and soap. But since the funds are very limited UNHCR’s latest round of food packages only reached 930 of the most vulnerable families (“Refugees and their host communities in India hard hit by coronavirus lockdown – India,” 2020). Providing healthcare to all the refugees has been a challenge to both UNHRC as well as the Indian government itself due to the pandemic and as a result limited resource.
In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose a challenge to our government and going to be a troubling issue for all the citizens and the refugees in the foreseeable future with continuous extensions of lockdowns in parts of the country with red zones. We have to face this problem until a viable vaccine comes to our rescue and even though some states have eased down on the restrictions in respect to lockdowns, the pandemic will remain a challenge for everyone with daily cases rising and a possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 cases underway.
Pullanoor, H. (2020, May 19). Covid-19 lockdown exposes India’s looming migrant refugee crisis. Retrieved from https://qz.com/india/1858209/covid-19-lockdown-exposes-indias-looming-migrant-refugee-crisis/
Refugees and their host communities in India hard hit by coronavirus lockdown – India. (2020, July 1). Retrieved from https://reliefweb.int/report/india/refugees-and-their-host-communities-india-hard-hit-coronavirus-lockdown
Shanker, R., & Raghavan, P. (2020, May 19). The Invisible Crisis: Refugees and COVID-19 in India. Retrieved from https://www.kaldorcentre.unsw.edu.au/publication/invisible-crisis-refugees-and-covid-19-india
Vijayaraghavan, H. (2020, September 30). Gaps in India’s Treatment of Refugees and Vulnerable Internal Migrants Are Exposed by the Pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/gaps-india-refugees-vulnerable-internal-migrants-pandemic
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.