New Delhi, India – Earlier this month, 55-year-old Rohingya refugee Noor Aisha died of complications from COVID-19 in a government hospital in India-controlled Kashmir.
Aisha was one of more than 200 refugees arrested three months ago. They were detained in the Katuya district of the Himalayas for “illegal” living in India.
“My mother already suffers from breathing and mild heart problems,” Aisha’s 21-year-old son Akhtar Hussein told Al Jazeera.
“After she was arrested with others on March 6, her health began to deteriorate.”
Aisha and her 70-year-old husband, Nadim Hussain, were arrested on March 6 along with 220 other Rohingya allegedly undocumented, and were sent to Hiranagar Prison in Katua after government verification.
Officials say that at least 53 of these refugees in prison have tested positive for COVID-19.
“We quarantined these people immediately and prescribed them according to the doctor’s prescription,” the Sheriff of the Hiranagar Retention Center, who asked not to be named, told Al Jazeera.
The police officer claimed that the facility provided at least 57 Rohingya prisoners over 45 with the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
He said: “We have a team of doctors who come to check the health of the prisoners every day.”
A doctor at the Kathua Government School of Medicine said Aisha recovered on June 6 and tested negative.
“According to our doctor, she was diagnosed with IHD (ischemic heart disease) bilateral COVID-19 pneumonia at the time of her death,” Dr. Deepak Abrol, director of the hospital’s oncology department and official spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.
“In short, she died of a mild heart attack caused by the disease after COVID.”
Fear of detention and deportation
The Jammu region of Indian-controlled Kashmir is home to nearly 6,000 Rohingya refugees who fled military repression in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
“I left Myanmar with my parents and came to India through the mountains of Bangladesh,” said Hussein, who arrived in Jammu in 2014 to join his brother who moved earlier.
“We trek for a few days without food and water to reach Bangladesh, and then stayed in Kolkata for a few days before coming to Jammu.”
But refugees in Jammu have been worried about being detained and deported back to their country. They were taken by the military in the coup on February 1.
India is not a signatory of the United Nations Refugee Convention in 1951 and therefore does not recognize the refugee card issued by the UNHCR.
Therefore, they are not entitled to rations, housing, education, or government health care programs. The menacing second wave of the coronavirus pandemic will only exacerbate their plight.
Last week, a fire broke out in the Rohingya refugee camp in Madanpur Khadar, a slum on the Munna River in the Indian capital.
The fire made more than 200 refugees homeless, including 35-year-old Mohamed Salimullah, whose wife Fatima was killed by the new crown virus.
“My wife had symptoms of COVID-19 with high fever and difficulty breathing last year,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that when he took her to the local doctor, she did not receive any treatment.
“Fatima died eight months ago at the age of 29,” he said. “After she died, I was depressed and sick for several days.”
Saleemullah described Madanpur Khadar as a camp “infiltrating garbage and disease.”
“How do we apply for vaccinations?”
Community activists said that due to lack of legal documents and job opportunities, more than 20,000 Rohingya are struggling to pay for treatment or vaccinations.
Last month, the Indian Ministry of Health issued a new guide that allows people who do not have a biometric ID card called Aadhaar to be vaccinated.
This move was welcomed by UNHCR.
“This will provide vulnerable groups including refugees and asylum seekers with access to vaccines,” said the UNHCR spokesperson in New Delhi.
“Incorporating health response measures, social safety net vaccines are the key to protecting refugees and their hosts from the COVID-19 virus. Protecting their health also protects the health of their communities and members of society.”
However, Rohingya activists said that the implementation of the Ministry of Health’s directive still requires active efforts by community representatives to arrange and coordinate actions.
This coordination is carried out by local representatives or organizations, who often use their ID cards and phone numbers to reserve seats on behalf of refugees.
“With the help of local NGOs, we vaccinated 102 Rohingya refugees in Jaipur,” Dr. RK Sharma, a medical officer in the capital city of Rajasthan, told Al Jazeera. “The second dose will also be administered based on the same ID and mobile phone number.”
Although Jaipur has started vaccinations, refugee camps in New Delhi and Jammu are still waiting for news from the government.
“No one came here to vaccinate us or tell us how to vaccinate,” said Mohamed Younis, 46, who has been living in Jammu camp since 2008.
“They think we are outsiders and illegal immigrants. We don’t know when they will drive us out or send us away.”
The leader of the Rohingya community in Jammu, Mushtaq Ahmed, said, “The only way to combat this disease is to have everyone vaccinated equally”.
Although people who require vaccinations must register through a government portal, India’s digital divide does not help.
“The Indian government has made the vaccine registration process online,” said Sabber Kyaw Min, founder and director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, a community organization in New Delhi.
“Most of these people cannot use smartphones or the IDs required for registration. So how do we apply for the vaccine?”
This report was prepared and produced as part of the media skills development program provided by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.