Expert Speak Young Voices
Published on Jul 07, 2020
The plight of refugees in India during COVID19

Covid-19 and the ensuing lockdowns have exposed the pre-existing social inequalities in the world. Especially vulnerable are the refugees, nearly 80 percent of whom, live in developing countries in the absence of social benefits and poor healthcare facilities. They also have an added layer of disadvantage as many times they neither have citizenship entitlements nor proper identification documents that can help them access subsidised food, healthcare and other such benefits. The lack of legal recognition is a jarring prospect, but even more so during a pandemic. For example, in West Asia, in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, there are huge refugee populations, who are worried that they will not get priority from health officials during Covid-19 as they are not citizens of these countries.

This warrants a question on how India is treating its refugees. As of the first week of July, the country has already registered over 5,50,000 positive Covid-19 cases. The most affected and vulnerable in India includes migrant labourers, daily wage workers, and refugees. The manner in which the state handled the internal migrants, despite them being citizens, has come under criticism from several quarters. The plight of the migrants workers gained attention only when thousands of them started walking back across the country to their homes. Looking at what India’s internal migrants have had to go through, an analysis is required on how the refugees have fared under the lockdown.

India is home to a large number of refugees from various countries. As of 2016, the United Nations Fact Sheet estimates that India – while not being a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees – hosts 2,09,234 people of concern. This includes 1,10,095 from Tibet, 64,689 from Sri Lanka, 18,914 from Myanmar, 13,381 from Afghanistan, and also in much smaller numbers from Somalia, Bhutan, and Palestine. This includes refugees, asylum-seekers and stateless persons.  When people fleeing conflict/other forms of oppression get to their country of destination, they first seek asylum in that particular country. An asylum-seeker is a person who has claimed to be a refugee, but his/her situation is yet to be evaluated by the authorities from their host countries as, if they return to their home country they will be in danger. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is usually in charge of the refugee status determination process. India does not have a refugee law, and all refugees are considered illegal migrants under The Foreigners Act of 1946. However, India treats its refugees very ambiguously, based on its relations with the country from where refugees are coming in and based on the domestic politics of India itself. For example, Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees have certain rights and are assisted by the government, while the Rohingyas have been eyed with suspicion for various reasons.

 While a lot has been published about the plight of the Rohingyas during COVID-19 in India, there is a general lack of discourse on how the general refugee population in India is faring.

Loss of employment 

One of the common grievances for these three refugee groups is the loss of employment due to the lockdown. While many under-educated Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are daily wage labourers, the educated and skilled among them, too, have lost their jobs. Such refugees, who mainly work as construction workers or painters, have been deprived of their livelihoods as a result of the lockdown. It is reported that many of them are not even able to afford the government's distribution of vegetables. Rohingya refugees, many of them in Hyderabad, are reported to be starving because they are left without a source of income since the lockdown. The Rohingya refugees in Delhi, on the other hand, are not eligible for the livelihood assistance schemes of the Delhi government owing to the lack of recognition. The same is the condition of the Afghan refugees too, whose livelihood has been affected by the lockdown.

Social distancing: A privilege

Refugee camps in general are cramped spaces and this puts the group in further disadvantage. There are roughly 18,000 Rohingya refugees in India and thousands of them live in densely populated slum settlements in Delhi. As has been the case with slums such as Dharavi in Mumbai, adherence to social distancing norms is extremely difficult in these settlements. The same is the situation for the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who also live in cramped conditions in refugee camps with shared sanitation facilities. They also have no access to healthcare. Thousands of Afghan refugees, who live in small concentrated areas in different parts of Delhi also not have access to basic amenities. 

Human rights of refugees

Barring a few, there have not been many cases within the refugee population in India. A Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camp in Koodal Nagar, Tamil Nadu, was barricaded on 26 April as a driver from the camp tested positive for Covid-19. The Tamil Nadu government responded by deploying health workers to screen the refugees for symptoms. Several refugees subsequently also demanded to be reunited with their family members who are lodged in the ‘special camps’ scattered across the state. These special camps are built to house refugees who have been charged as offenders, many of whom have spent years in these ‘camps; without judicial trial, with zero access to medical services or interaction with their family members.

The Rohingyas, too, were subjected to increased scrutiny by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which ordered the mandatory health screening of all those who attended the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi at the beginning of March. So far, none of the Rohingyas who attended the religious congregation have tested positive, but the community fears heightened persecution and discrimination if any of them is found infected. This is not an irrational fear as the current government’s stand towards the Rohingya’s has been negative and even portraying them as a threat to the country. In January 2020 the centre also claimed that they will be deporting the Rohingya’s from India although this has been contested by various NGOs and activists at the Supreme court.

During the pandemic, the UNHCR has organised a number of campaigns to raise awareness among the Rohingyas regarding Covid-19 and how they can protect themselves. With the government not being responsive and owing to their unrecognised refugee status, most of the Rohingyas in India are either left to fend for themselves or rely on assistance provided by civil society groups such as Save the Children and the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative. Subsequently, there was a petition filed against the Delhi government for not providing help to Rohingya families in certain districts of southern Delhi. However, Delhi government has responded that relief measures are being provided around that area.


After fleeing from dangerous situations and undergoing hardships to reach the host country, refugees remain one of the most vulnerable groups in the world. With the lack of citizenship and lack of priority given to them, particular consideration needs to be given to these refugees to ensure that they have access to basic amenities, especially given the worsening Covid-19 situation. The suspension of the UNHCR’s refugee status determination process has also meant that most of those who have sought asylum are stuck for much longer in the conditions of deprivation and insecurity. While the state is helping Sri Lankan refugees and civil society groups are helping the Rohingyas, there needs to be more intervention by the government to ensure their safety and wellbeing. The first step would be to identify these populations and ensure that they benefit from the various programmes and initiatives of the government during these perilous times.

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