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  • For the overwhelming majority in the Rohingya refugee camps, soap is a luxury, let alone facemasks and sanitizers.

    For the overwhelming majority in the Rohingya refugee camps, soap is a luxury, let alone facemasks and sanitizers. | Photo: EFE

Published 31 March 2020

"The Indian government is protecting its people while international organizations such as UNHCR have turned a blind eye towards us," Sabber Kyaw Min from Rohingya Human Rights Initiative said.

About 40,000 Rohingyas living in cramped refugee camps across India are struggling to maintain social distancing and implement the recommended health measures to keep safe during the three-week lockdown enforced by the Indian government to fight the coronavirus.

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These refugees are now living in fear of a humanitarian catastrophe, as they have been left to fight the pandemic alone, Al Jazeera reported.

"We are literally sitting on a powder keg," a refugee from a camp in the capital, New Delhi, told the news outlet. "It won't take long before it explodes."

Although extremely concerned about the spread of the virus, refugees can do very little to protect themselves as they live in wood and plastic sheet shanties that lean on each other making it impossible to isolate.

In addition, for the overwhelming majority, soap is a luxury, let alone facemasks and sanitizers.

A computer teacher, Jaffar Ullah, 29, lives in one of the shanties. He finished his last bar of soap Saturday and has nothing left to wash his hands with.

"Only a few families have soaps in our slum, while most of them can't afford to buy one," he said.

Municipal workers disinfected nearby residential zones, but not the slums. Over the past days, there were cases of fever among the refugees, Ullah said.

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"They can't go to hospitals because the regular OPDs (outpatient departments) are closed due to lockdown. No one from the administration has come to check on us," he added.

"There is a serious risk of coronavirus outbreak in Rohingya refugee slums," Sabber Kyaw Min from Rohingya Human Rights Initiative (ROHRInga), a non-profit organization based in New Delhi told Al Jazeera.

"The Indian government is protecting its people while international organizations such as UNHCR (the United Nations refugee agency) have turned a blind eye towards us. We are literally left alone to fight this pandemic," he said.

The UNHCR office in New Delhi denied delaying its response and said it has been closely monitoring the situation.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on March 24 a strict lockdown for India's 1.3 billion people in a bid to prevent the spread of the deadly disease.

But many in the country criticized the implementation of the lockdown and the government’s lack of planning ahead of the decision that left millions of poor people hungry and forced migrant workers to walk hundreds of kilometers back to their native villages.

As of Tuesday, Indian authorities reported more than 1,300 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 35 deaths.

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