On 16 April, after visiting three different hospitals in Delhi, a 30-year-old Chin refugee died of COVID-19. According to his mother, who wished to remain anonymous, the 30-year-old told her about the last hospital, “Since my features are different, they don’t pay attention to me. I am very hurt. I want to jump from the top floor but I cannot.” His mother, amid sobs, told me that his last days had been torturous. “He told me they used to shout at him. They asked for 50,000 rupees, the next day they asked for 70,000. And on the third day, they asked for 80,000. He used to call us and he said that he had not even seen a doctor. ‘I am very hungry; I am always hungry’ he said. When we went, they didn’t allow us to see him.” Along with the 30-year-old, four others of Delhi’s small Chin refugee community have died of COVID-19 during the second wave, often without any medical care in government hospitals because they lacked the documentation or money required for private hospitalisation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged India’s various refugee communities, particularly Delhi’s Chin community, a predominantly Christian group of people from the Chin state of Myanmar that borders Mizoram and Manipur. The only perceivable end to the disease for the community is when they are fully vaccinated. However, India’s vaccine-distribution system, the government-developed CoWIN app, requires an identity card such as an Aadhar card, passport, PAN card or voter ID, all of which Chin refugees are ineligible for. The only identifying document many refugees possess is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees card—commonly referred to as the UN card—and the UNHCR and the government have seemed to have done little to ensure that refugees are vaccinated.
The only government document that addresses vaccination for undocumented communities is a Statement of Purpose published by the ministry of health and family welfare on 6 May. The SoP aimed to create a procedure through which marginalised groups who do not have access to government recognised identification cards could access vaccines. Representatives of the UNHCR told me that this SoP addressed the problem of vaccine registration for refugees despite it not mentioning refugees a single time.
The Chin state has seen a prolonged armed struggle for self-government and a federated government of Myanmar since the late 1980s. The Chin Human Rights Organization—a human rights NGO working in consultation with the UN—has reported that the Burmese army have committed ethnic cleansing against the Chin community. Many Chin refugees fled to India during the following decades.
More recently, following the military coup in Myanmar, on 1 February, and the arrest of 171 pro-democracy Chin activists, many more Chin refugees have fled to the neighbouring state of Mizoram. On 20 March, Zoramthanga, the chief minister of Mizoram, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticising the union government’s orders to prevent migration from Myanmar, stating that it was unacceptable and that all refugees should be provided asylum on humanitarian grounds. Despite this, on 22 March, the ministry of home affairs deployed the paramilitary Assam Rifles on the Myanmar border to prevent Chin refugees from entering the country. On 26 March, the Manipur government’s home department issued a circular to five deputy commissioners asking them to “not open any [refugee] camps to provide food and shelter” and “politely turn away” asylum seekers. The circular was later withdrawn.