“Including refugees in the vaccine rollout is the key to ending the pandemic,” says UNHCR.
It will be a monumental task for India, which is currently facing a huge shortage of vaccines, to vaccinate the refugees living in the country.
2,40,000 refugees and asylum seekers and nearly 3.8 million Nepali and Bangladeshi immigrants are in India currently. And for now, all of them are excluded from India’s ambitious but very slow vaccination plan.
The Quint met some of the refugee families from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Myanmar living in Delhi to find out what they feel about this exclusion.
Refugees who are registered under UNHCR are provided with a card identifying them as refugees. The government of India has not listed the UNHCR card among the 7 ID proofs required for vaccination.
Only Pakistani Refugees in Delhi's Shree Ram Sena Hindu camp had their Aadhar cards. So they are the only ones who have been vaccinated. All of them, 45 and above.
‘No One Is Safe Till Everyone Is Safe’
Eighteen-years-old Minaz is a Rohingya Muslim and has been living as a refugee in India for the past nine years.
Living in a cramped refugee camp in Delhi makes her and many like her more vulnerable to the virus. Out of the fear of getting infected, they aren’t stepping out of the camp and are surviving on ration distributed by NGOs.
She says the UNHCR card is useless, it doesn't even help them get medical aid as doctors refuse to accept it as valid ID proof.
‘‘If they vaccinate Indians or those who have the documents and won’t vaccinate the rest. It’s not like the rest of us won’t get infected with the coronavirus. We are living in this country, we meet its citizens, we go to school, and take classes with them. We meet Indians, so if we get infected. Then, it can spread to them as well.’’Minaz, Rohingya Refugee
Abdullah lives just a few tents away from Minaz, his priority is not the vaccine but to save his wife, Minara from being taken to a holding centre. They both have the same case number, while Abdullah's card was renewed his wife's wasn't.
‘‘When people with valid cards are facing problems, not having a card will invite more trouble. They say she had gone to Bangladesh after coming to India. How can she go to Bangladesh? She had our baby at the Safdarjung Hospital in 2019.’’Abdullah, Rohingya Refugee
Not Yet Indian Citizens but Vaccination Done
Escaping brutality in Pakistan, Bhagwani and Gopi Bhagri came to India in 2016. They have received their first dose of the covishield vaccine.
They are not sure that the people who came to inform them about the vaccination centre were from the government or some NGO. Their Aadhar cards were made by their local 'pradhan'.
‘‘I don’t have an Aadhaar card. I showed my passport to get the vaccine. I had submitted my passport to get my Aadhaar card made.’’Laxmi, Refugee from Pakistan
Situated on the Yamuna river bank, these camps at Delhi's Majnu ka Tila has almost 140 Pakistani refugee families. More than the vaccination, it's the terrible living conditions that bother them. The Quint's team was approached by many refugees at the camp who eagerly wanted to highlight the problem of mosquitoes and lack of electricity.
‘‘There are so many mosquitos, people are falling ill because of mosquito bites. People have fever. We don’t have electricity. They don’t listen to our concerns. I request them to give us electricity.’’Laxmi, Refugee from Pakistan
‘We Fear Myanmar's Military More Than the Virus’
Swe Zin Aung and her family escaped the military crackdown in Myanmar and fled to Delhi on 5 April 2021. Aung's family is on the 'warrant' or the 'red' list of the Military for leading the Civil Disobedience Movement in Yangoon.
‘‘We had no choice. They will kill us if we get arrested. We weren’t concerned about COVID. First, we needed to escape from the Military General and try to survive.’’Swe Zin Aung, Refugee from Myanmar
Aung's mother Daw Ni Ni Hatwe recalls the day when the military returned the corpse of two protestors arrested by them. She panicked that her children could be next.
They belong to the majority Buddhist community of Myanmar, which has been continuously protesting along with Christians and other minority groups, demanding the release of their leader, Aung San Syuu Ki.
While UNHCR is still processing their application to register them as refugees, their only hope is Myanmar's ethnic Chin refugee committee in Delhi.
They were their only contact while coming to India. The committee has helped them find temporary accommodation.
‘‘We are scared of COVID-19 but what’s happening in Myanmar is worse than the virus. My mother and uncle are old. They must get the vaccine. Even if it doesn’t happen immediately, as is the same with citizenship. But I hope the government will implement it a few months later.’’Swe Zin Aung, Refugee from Myanmar
Vaccination is not their only concern. They need a job to survive, medical and food aid, safety from the Myanmar military and most importantly to find Daw Ni Ni's missing husband.
Over the past year, over 650 Afghan Sikhs have been forced to flee Afghanistan and seek refuge in India. Frequent attacks on Gurudwaras, harassment of kids in school, kidnapping and intimidation off businessmen, left them with no other option but to leave the place which they once called home.
The Quint visited a colony of Afghan Sikhs in Delhi's Janakpuri. Many informed us that they have been promised vaccination by AAP MLA, Jarnail Singh.
‘‘The government never tried to enquire about our well-being. It’s only our brothers and the gurudwara (Guru Arjan Dev) who send us some amount of money at intervals.’’Dalip Sigh, Afghan Refugee
While India is facing a vaccine shortage, 51 countries have included refugees in their vaccination plan. (Source: UNHCR)
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