Rohingya refugees struggle for vaccine in COVID-hit India

Death of a Rohingya woman of COVID-19 while in detention highlights the plight of poverty-stricken refugees.

The Jammu region in Indian-administered Kashmir is home to nearly 6,000 Rohingya [Kanika Gupta/Al Jazeera]

New Delhi, India – Earlier this month, Noor Aisha, a 55-year-old Rohingya refugee, died from COVID-19 complications at a government hospital in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Aisha was among more than 200 refugees arrested three months ago and jailed in the Himalayan region’s Kathua district for living in India “illegally”.

“My mother was already suffering from breathing and minor heart problems,” Akhtar Hussain, Aisha’s 21-year-old son, told Al Jazeera.

“After she was arrested on March 6 with the others, her health started deteriorating.”

Aisha and her 70-year-old husband, Nadim Hussain, were arrested on March 6 along with 220 other allegedly undocumented Rohingya and sent to Hiranagar jail in Kathua following a verification drive conducted by the government.

At least 53 of those refugees tested positive for COVID-19 while they were in prison, officials said.

Muslim-majority Rohingya fled a military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state [Kanika Gupta/Al Jazeera]

“We immediately isolated these people and gave them medicines as prescribed by the doctor,” the superintendent of police at the Hiranagar Holding Centre, who did not want to be named, told Al Jazeera.

The police officer claimed the facility provided the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to at least 57 Rohingya inmates, who were over the age of 45.

“We have a team of doctors that comes every day to check the health of inmates,” he said.

A physician at the Government Medical College in Kathua said Aisha had recovered and tested negative on June 6.

“According to our doctors, she was diagnosed with bilateral COVID-19 pneumonia with IHD (ischemic heart disease) at the time of her death,” Dr Deepak Abrol, head of the oncology department and the official spokesman at the hospital, told Al Jazeera.

“In simple terms, she died of a mild heart attack due to post-COVID illness.”

Fears of detention and deportation

The Jammu region in Indian-administered Kashmir is home to nearly 6,000 Rohingya refugees who fled a military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

“I left Myanmar with my parents and came to India via the mountains in Bangladesh,” said Hussain, who arrived in Jammu in 2014 to join his brother who had moved earlier.

“We trekked for days without food and water to reach Bangladesh and then stayed in Kolkata for a few days before coming to Jammu.”

But the refugees in Jammu live in constant fear of detention and deportation to their country, which was seized by the military in a February 1 coup.

India is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951 and hence, does not recognise refugee cards issued by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

As a result, they do not have the right to access rations, housing, education or the government’s healthcare plans. A ferocious second wave of the coronavirus pandemic has only added to their woes.

Last week, a massive fire erupted at a Rohingya refugee camp at Madanpur Khadar, a slum on the banks of the Yamuna river in the Indian capital, New Delhi.

Firefighters douse the flames as fire reduces a Rohingya camp to ashes in New Delhi [Meer Faisal/Al Jazeera]

The fire rendered more than 200 refugees homeless, including 35-year-old Mohammad Saleemullah, who lost his wife Fatima to COVID.

“My wife developed COVID-19 symptoms of high fever and breathlessness last year,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that she was not given any treatment when he took her to a local doctor.

“Fatima passed away eight months ago at the age of 29,” he said. “After her death, I was depressed and fell sick for many days.”

Saleemullah described Madanpur Khadar as a camp “seeped in garbage and sickness”.

‘How do we apply for vaccination?’

Community activists say more than 20,000 Rohingya are struggling to pay for treatment or get vaccinated due to a lack of legal documents and employment opportunities.

Last month, India’s health ministry released a new guideline, which allowed vaccination for people who do not have biometric ID cards called Aadhaar.

The move was welcomed by the UNHCR.

“This will provide an opportunity for vulnerable groups including refugees and asylum seekers to access vaccines.” a UNHCR spokesperson in New Delhi said.

“Inclusion in health responses, vaccines to social safety nets is key to protecting refugees and their hosts from COVID-19 virus. Safeguarding their health also protects the health of their host communities and members of society.”

However, Rohingya activists say the implementation of the health ministry’s directive still requires proactive efforts by community representatives to schedule and coordinate the drive.

That coordination is undertaken by a local representative or organisation who often use their own IDs and phone numbers to book slots on behalf of the refugees.

“We vaccinated 102 Rohingya refugees in Jaipur with the help of a local NGO,” Dr RK Sharma, a medical officer in the capital city of Rajasthan state, told Al Jazeera. “The second dose will also be administered based on same ID and mobile number.”

While vaccination began in Jaipur, refugee camps in New Delhi and Jammu are still waiting to hear from the government about their turn.

“Nobody has come here to vaccinate us or told us how to get the vaccine,” said Mohammad Younis, 46, who has been living in the Jammu camp since 2008.

“They think of us as outsiders, illegal immigrants. We don’t know when they will throw us out or send us away.”

Mushtaq Ahmed, a Rohingya community leader in Jammu, said the “only way to fight this disease is to get everyone vaccinated equally”.

While those seeking vaccination are required to register through a government portal, India’s digital divide is not helping, either.

“The Indian government has made the vaccine registration process online,” said Sabber Kyaw Min, founder and director of Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, a New Delhi-based community group.

“Most of these people don’t have access to smartphones or requisite ID cards for registration. So how do we apply for vaccination?”

This report was written and produced as part of a media skills development programme delivered by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Source: Al Jazeera