A gendered pandemic: Refugee women in India left highly vulnerable in lockdown

While refugees remain excluded from most public health and nutrition programmes in India, refugee women in particular lack access to maternal and sexual healthcare.
Refugee camp
Refugee camp

Gloria*, a Congolese refugee woman living alone in Delhi, needs regular dialysis. The government hospital where she can afford these services is about two kilometres from her home. Restrictions on public transport and overstretched ambulance services leave her with no option but to walk to her appointment. On her way, she is followed by a man and verbally harassed. There is no one around to help.

Gloria’s situation offers a glimpse of a bigger problem involving more severe forms of abuse. The Indian government’s efforts to shelter people from the COVID-19 pandemic by adopting extraordinary measures, including a complete nation-wide lockdown which has left Indian streets deserted, have been lauded the world over. However, these policies have inadvertently created a pandemic of a different kind; one of exclusion and violence that disproportionately affects the most vulnerable.

India hosts over 2 lakh refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom live in densely populated urban settlements with uncertainty over their legal status and concurrent exclusion from welfare programmes. The pandemic both exacerbates, and is exacerbated by, their vulnerabilities; cramped living conditions render physical distancing impossible, and access to sanitation, adequate nutrition and healthcare is never guaranteed. Being largely excluded from the formal economy and without access to bank accounts, most refugees and asylum seekers in India lead a hand-to-mouth existence. While the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) and its partners are working to assist refugees with rations and other essential supplies, general disruption in the humanitarian supply chain has brought cracks in the system into sharp focus.

As has been seen around the world, one of the most horrific, if predictable, effects of the lockdown is a rise in violence against women. Stay-at-home orders do not take into account the fact that many women are unsafe in their own homes. Confinement and stresses to income and food security form conditions that are likely to increase the risk of domestic and intimate partner violence. These risks are heightened for displaced and stateless women, who typically lack documentation that might enable them to seek legal recourse and financial independence.

Women refugees are inherently isolated from their traditional support systems of family, friends and community, and the lockdown further bolsters isolation from support networks – a boon to abusers. In India, community engagement is dominated by men, and refugee women find themselves alone in a foreign land without a voice. Many naturally harbour a deep mistrust of authority, arising from their precarious legal status and fear of arrest and deportation, as well as past experiences of persecution and displacement. This anxiety is aggravated by poor access to news and information in languages they understand. All of these factors combine to severely limit their access to essential public services.

Daniel*, a Congolese community leader in Delhi, notes the psychological impact that the lockdown has had on members of his community: “When police and healthcare officials knock on doors, as they have been doing in ‘hotspots’ and ‘red zones’, the first reaction for many people is fear, which is made worse by the language barrier,” he explains.

Since many refugees rely on informal relationships within their community for information, rumours and misinformation spread with ease. “We’re trying our best to provide translated information from reliable sources on our WhatsApp groups. UNHCR and their partners have also been helping us with videos and other shareable resources, but access to information remains a concern,” says a youth leader from Kalindi Kunj, where thousands of Rohingya refugees reside in one of Delhi’s largest camps amid mountains of medical waste.

While refugees are allowed to obtain services at government hospitals, they remain excluded from most public health and nutrition programmes in India. Refugee women in particular lack access to maternal and sexual healthcare. Compared to the general population, far higher numbers of refugees suffer from depression, PTSD, or schizophrenia, due to traumatic experiences of war and systematic persecution. For many, the lockdown also means disrupted access to psycho-social support, psychiatric care and medications.

The few institutions which are available to help – non-governmental organisations, shelter homes and rescue services – often function beyond capacity and are now struggling to respond under the restrictions on movement. Recorded increases in distress calls only tally the women with enough freedom to own a mobile phone or to get out of earshot of abusers. The true numbers of those in distress are undoubtedly higher.

The longer term impact of COVID-19 may, however, be on social cohesion. The discrimination faced by many refugees in India has been compounded in recent months, with misinformation and scapegoating buoying an underlying xenophobia. A prominent member of the Chin community in Delhi reports that Chin refugees are being discriminated against by a multitude of groups: by the police, who harass them as they step outside to avail essential services; by shopkeepers, who refuse to sell them their wares including medicines; by landlords, who have evicted or threatened to evict them; and by other members of the public, who now call them ‘corona’, a word that has inherited racist connotations.

It is imperative for policy in India and the world over to take into account the needs of the most vulnerable. Indeed, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are only as safe and as healthy as the weakest links in our society. Refugees are inherently the least equipped to navigate a world that can change overnight. The uncertainty and isolation we are experiencing ourselves offers us a brief glimpse into the daily lives of refugees – let us use that insight for more empathetic and inclusive policymaking.

* All names changed for security reasons.

Roshni Shanker is the founder and Executive Director of the Migration and Asylum Project (M.A.P.), a refugee law centre based in New Delhi. M.A.P. has received funding from several international donors including the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, The Clifford Chance Foundation, and the Commonwealth Foundation.

Shweta Malik is a Legal Consultant at M.A.P.

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