Struggles of refugees are invisible in this pandemic: Roshni Shanker, former UNHCR lawyer

29 May 2020
Courtesy Migration and Asylum Project
Courtesy Migration and Asylum Project

The central government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a sudden and harsh lockdown that has continued for over two months, has pushed India’s marginalised communities into a life which is rife with uncertainty. The ongoing crisis imposed many hardships on the country’s unorganised labour force—an overwhelming number of whom were displaced from their homes and struggled through unemployment and hunger. Among those bearing the brunt of the lockdown have been India’s refugees, who have remained invisible in a pandemic response that exclusively catered to its citizens.

In the absence of any government assistance, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, a UN agency that works to safeguard the rights of refugees around the world, has been engaged in efforts to ensure supply of essential requirements to refugees in India. To understand the plight of the refugees stuck in India during the lockdown, Aathira Konikkara, a reporting fellow with The Caravan, spoke with Roshni Shanker, the founder and executive director of the Migration and Asylum Project. The MAP’s primary focus is to ensure legal representation for refugees in India in the UNHCR’s asylum proceedings. 

In the following interview, Shanker, who was formerly a lawyer with the UNHCR, explained how the struggles of refugees, especially women, escalated during the pandemic because of their statelessness. “Their legal status has always been tenuous,” she said. “They have been allowed to stay here on a good-faith basis. But some of them don’t have a clear government documentation. So, without documentation, what can you access?”

Aathira Konikkara: Have you come across any COVID-19 cases among the refugees whom you have been engaging with?
Roshni Shanker: In our community, which is all the UNHCR-registered refugees in Delhi, there has so far not been any case, thankfully. Nothing has been reported.

The way refugees are divided in India—some of them are looked after by UNHCR, they are registered and protected by UNHCR; while the Sri Lankans and the Tibetans, refugees from neighbouring countries, come under the government mandate directly. I know that in the Tibetan community, there has been a report of somebody testing positive for COVID. I haven’t heard anything from the Sri Lankan refugee community yet.

Aathira Konikkara is a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: COVID-19 UNHCR public health refugees