New Delhi, India – Earlier this month, Noor Aisha, a 55-year-old Rohingya refugee, died of COVID-19 complications at a government-run Kashmir government hospital run by India.
Aisha was among more than 200 refugees arrested three months ago and jailed in the Kathua district of the Himalayan region for living “illegally” in India.
“My mother was already suffering from respiratory and minor heart problems,” Akisha’s 21-year-old son Aisha told Al Jazeera.
“After she was arrested on March 6 with the others, her health began to deteriorate.”
Aisha and her husband, Nadim Hussain, 70, were arrested on March 6 along with 220 Rohingya allegedly undocumented and sent to Hiranagar Prison in Kathua following a government verification test.
At least 53 of those refugees tested positive for COVID-19 while in prison, officials said.
“We immediately isolated these people and gave them medicines according to the doctor’s prescriptions,” the police superintendent of the Hiranagar detention center, who did not want to be appointed, told Al Jazeera.
The police officer said the facility provided the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to at least 57 Rohingya prisoners, who were over 45 years old.
“We have a team of doctors who come every day to check the health of the inmates,” he said.
A doctor at Government Medical College in Kathua said Aisha had recovered and tested negative on June 6.
“According to our doctors, he was diagnosed with bilateral COVID-19 pneumonia with IHD (ischemic heart disease) at the time of his death,” Dr. Deepak Abrol, head of the oncology department and spokesman, told Al Jazeera hospital officer. .
“In simple terms, he died of a mild heart attack due to a post-COVID disease.”
Fears of arrest and deportation
The Indian-administered Kashmir region of Kashmir is home to nearly 6,000 Rohingya refugees who fled military repression in Rakhine State, Myanmar.
“I left Myanmar with my parents and came to India through the mountains of Bangladesh,” said Hussain, who came to Jammu in 2014 to join his brother who had previously moved.
“We walked for days without food or water to get to Bangladesh and then stayed in Calcutta for a few days before arriving in Jammu.”
But refugees in Jammu are constantly living in fear of being arrested and deported to their country, which was confiscated by the military in a February 1 coup.
India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to Refugees and therefore does not recognize refugee cards issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
As a result, they have no right to access rations, housing, education or government health plans. A fierce second wave of coronavirus pandemic has only added to their problems.
A massive fire broke out last week in a Rohingya refugee camp in Madanpur Khadar, a slum on the banks of the Yamuna River in the Indian capital, New Delhi.
The fire left more than 200 refugees homeless, including 35-year-old Mohammad Saleemullah, who lost his wife Fatima to COVID.
“My wife presented with COVID-19 symptoms of high fever and shortness of breath last year,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that she was not given any treatment when she took her to a local doctor.
“Fatima died eight months ago at the age of 29,” he said. “After his death, I was depressed and sick for many days.”
Saleemullah described Madanpur Khadar as a “garbage and disease filtered” camp.
“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 job opportunities.
Last month, the Ministry of Health of India issued a new guideline, which allowed people who did not have biometric ID cards called Aadhaar to be vaccinated.
UNHCR welcomed this measure.
“This will provide an opportunity for vulnerable groups, including refugees and asylum seekers, to access vaccines.” said a UNHCR spokesman in New Delhi.
“Inclusion in health responses, vaccines in social safety nets is key to protecting refugees and their guests from the COVID-19 virus. Safeguarding their health also protects the health of host communities and members of society. ”
However, Rohingya activists say the implementation of the health ministry directive still requires proactive efforts by community representatives to schedule and coordinate the work.
This coordination is commissioned by a local representative or organization who often uses their own identifiers and telephone numbers to reserve time slots on behalf of refugees.
“We vaccinated 102 Rohingya refugees in Jaipur with the help of a local NGO,” Dr. RK Sharma, a doctor in the state capital of Rajasthan, told Al Jazeera. “The second dose will also be administered based on the same ID and mobile number.”
While vaccination began in Jaipur, the refugee camps in New Delhi and Jammu are still waiting for news from the government about their turn.
“No one has come here to vaccinate us or told us how to get it,” said Mohammad Younis, 46, who has lived in Jammu camp since 2008.
“They think of us as strangers, illegal immigrants. We don’t know when they will kick us out or kick us out. “
Mushtaq Ahmed, leader of the Rohingya community in Jammu, said that “the only way to fight this disease is to vaccinate everyone equally.”
While those seeking vaccination must register through a government portal, India’s digital divide does not help either.
“The Indian government has carried out the online vaccine registration process,” said Sabber Kyaw Min, founder and director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, a New Delhi-based community group.
“Most of these people don’t have access to the smartphones or ID cards needed for registration. So how do we apply for vaccination?”
This report was written and produced as part of a media skills development program taught by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.