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

Courtesy Migration and Asylum Project
29 May, 2020

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.

AK: Has UNHCR released any guidelines to governments regarding how they should tailor their COVID-19 response for refugees?
RS: They have issued an advisory, more like an appeal, to the government, saying that you need to integrate them into your national schemes. You should not ignore this population; you tend to forget about them because they don’t have status. And in India, it’s also a smaller number. It’s not like a huge number of refugees live in India, right? So they tend to be invisible in this pandemic. I think their efforts have been more to heighten visibility and to appeal to the government but there are no guidelines as such. We have not even signed the convention [referring to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted by the UN in 1951]. So the UNHCR is here on a good faith basis. They don’t really have a legal authority to ask the government. They can make an appeal saying please remember refugees and integrate them into your policies.

AK: What has been the extent of the access to testing for the refugees through the government or through medical camps set up by non-governmental organisations?
RS: Nothing has been done on a systematic scale to get them tested. They have the same access as anybody in India would have, which is to go to the government hospital. They have access to government hospitals in general, which usually do not deny them treatment. I don’t think people have gone yet because there is generally a fear of going to hospitals.  

AK: You have previously criticised the linking of access to essential services with Aadhar and the difficulties it posed for refugees. How has this situation been exacerbated in the context of the pandemic?
RS: This is the time, during a pandemic, when you are actually trying to access government services more than ever before. Earlier, you were largely reliant on the UNHCR’s parallel system. The UNHCR’s traditional service-delivery mechanisms have also stopped because of the lockdown. So, everybody is more and more reliant on government services. There is also a fear among refugees that you know, their legal status has always been tenuous. 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? You cannot access anything, essentially.

Our concern is about community spread. There is no two ways about it. When that happens, we don’t know how much access they are going to have because everything right now is [conducted through] government-established structures. NGOs can only do so much. We can spread awareness, we can give rations, which is happening. UNHCR’s partners are providing rations. It is a parallel system [with the government] where UNHCR and its partners were making ration kits and distributing it to them. They had made their own ration kits because they don’t have access to any of the mainstream systems [referring to the public-distribution system]. So, they are completely reliant on parallel systems.

AK: Is the UNHCR facing any issues with procurement of rations right now?
RS: They are not facing issues procuring it. I think distribution in containment zones is a challenge because they have a limited reach. They only have a few centres across Delhi. They don’t have the capacity to do home delivery.

AK: The government’s COVID-19 response has been criticised for the lack of clear communication and last-minute communication. Even the refugees must find it difficult to comprehend the little information that is available because of language barriers or illiteracy. What is the impact on the mental health of refugees who are grappling with the pandemic?
RS: The mental-health impact with the community is already heightened because they are fleeing war and conflict. It is not normal at all. There is not enough assistance here in terms of psycho-social support because conflict-related psycho-social support is a very specialised area. You find counsellors for accident-related trauma or illness-related trauma. But conflict-related is very specific. Most of them are survivors of trafficking. They already come with a lot of trauma. And not having this information and being in lockdown without any certainty, without access to food or ration … I think ration has been the biggest problem.

The other problem is that landlords have evicted single women. One of our clients who is a single woman, who is paralysed, was just left outside her house because the landlord refused to waive the rent amount. She had to go and move in with her community. Right in between the pandemic, she was [left] outside her house. Landlords tend to do that because they know that she is not going to be able to go to the police and get help because of her status—the fact that everybody knows that their status is tenuous, they can’t get support from the cops or anybody. The same reason for sexual violence also. They have become easy targets because they don’t have the same access to legal-protection systems like a citizen should have. Eviction has been a big problem because there is literally nothing you can do. And the shelters are full.

AK: And they would have been employed in the unorganised sector during non-COVID times.
RS: Yes, most of them work in the informal sector which are manufacturing factories, a lot of them work as interpreters in hospitals or in call centres. In all these situations, they are more open to exploitation because of their status. That has always been the case. Now it is all the more because everybody is trying to look after themselves. Ration has been an issue for single women with children. [During the lockdown,] till UNHCR was able to provide ration kits, there was literally no way. We have been getting a lot of calls for that, saying what do I do for food. They don’t have a ration card. They can’t get it from the central system. They are dependent on UNHCR giving them ration.

AK: What is the nature of access to reproductive healthcare available to women refugees? How has it been affected due to the lockdown?
RS: They don’t have any access right now whatsoever. Their access to healthcare was primarily routed through UNHCR’s partners who ran health facilities. They have to come to the centre for that. The way it used to work was that they [the partners] would come to one centre and the refugees would come and access them in that centre. Now the centre is shut down for the time being. The only thing the refugees can do is go to the nearest government hospital, which they are not going because there is a general fear of catching the virus if they go somewhere.

AK: Once the lockdown lifts, what are your organisation’s plans to reach out to refugee women in terms of relief measures?
RS: Refugee women have always had access to the criminal-justice system because that applies to any woman within the territory of India if you face sexual violence. It is not based on your citizenship, legally speaking. We have been giving them legal-awareness information—how to identify a crime, what you can do, what are the helplines, what kind of assistance you can access. We are also trying to figure out remote assistance to provide information; having a missed-call service where you call up on a number and you get that information or it connects you directly to a helpline. We are also trying to see what sort of little platforms we can create for remote assistance. But that, of course, also depends on them being able to have basic internet.

AK: And also being able to understand how to use these facilities, right?
RS: Correct. And like I said, with women, it is all the more a problem because [the phones] are usually controlled by children or the men. With migrants, it will become an election issue. It is a political issue because they are citizens of the country. Here, it doesn’t really matter because their numbers are small. So, I think our worry is more about the invisibility factor. But providing information in different languages, that is stuff that NGOs have been able to step in and do. The first thing we did as soon as the outbreak happened was to take the WHO guidelines [for general precautions against COVID-19] and we translated it into six refugee languages and we WhatsApp-ed it to all our clients. Those are things we can do. With ration, like I said, UNHCR was able to distribute ration supplies but it is not sustainable, right? They can provide it one time. That kind of ration gets over in a week or two weeks in a family. For the lockdown, for one time, it was fine. But it is going to be like this for the next six-seven months. Most of them have lost their jobs.

With a lot of them, the documents are expiring. Asylum interviews have been cancelled for the time-being. They have to go to UNHCR for their asylum interviews or register themselves as asylum-seekers. But that whole system shut down because of the lockdown. So people don’t have access to asylum, and because they don’t have access to asylum, they don’t have access to documentation. So, they are actually in a legal limbo. They are in India but they haven’t registered as asylum seekers then they are actually illegal in that sense.

AK: So, if you want to access UNHCR’S help, you need to be registered as an asylum-seeker?
RS: That is the first step. Once you are registered as an asylum seeker, the UNHCR electronically renews your documents. Usually, these documents are renewed every three months or after a particular time period. Those renewals also have to happen, otherwise your documents are not valid. They are trying to do that digitally but no interviews are happening. A lot of them who had asylum interviews during the lockdown period may have been recognised [on paper] and may have [been assigned] a refugee card, but they don’t have [physical] access to that right now.

So, we don’t know when that will start because face-to-face interviews are unlikely to happen for several months. We will have to do something like a remote asylum-interview which has not happened before because there are a lot of other concerns of confidentiality. Usually in asylum interviews, you get to know the problem that is affecting the woman in the house or she may have a claim of her own or you may have a family member who is from the LGBTI community. All of that information you collect during that interview when you interview them separately.

AK: It is integral that you meet them in person. It cannot be a phone interview.
RS: It can’t. There is no privacy. There are other issues. If it is not a credible claim, for example, the husband is saying something, the wife is saying something. You don’t know if the person on the other end of the line is the applicant. It could be somebody else. We don’t know how these things would work. I think we need to create virtual interview rooms in community areas so that people can at least get to those even if they can’t come all the way to UNHCR offices. Or even assistance—say a woman wants to come and file a complaint or reach out for assistance, she can at least come and have that room because they can’t do it with their phones. It’s not possible.

This interview has been edited and condensed.