Rohingya refugee camps: Ground reality points at unlivable conditions with no drinking water or healthcare

The Indian Express visited four settlements, including these two in Delhi, Mewat and Faridabad and what came to light were tales of women being denied reproductive rights and children suffering from malnutrition and diarrhoea.

Written by Somya Lakhani , Anand Mohan J | New Delhi | Updated: April 16, 2018 7:21:14 am
Rohingya refugee camps: Ground reality points at unlivable conditions with no drinking water or healthcare Residents at Shaheen Bagh say they take water from the DJB tanker after other migrant communities have had their fill. (Tashi Tobgyal)

On April 9, the Supreme Court ordered the Centre to file within four weeks a status report on basic amenities provided to two Rohingya camps in Delhi’s Kalindi Kunj and Haryana’s Mewat. Over the next three days, The Indian Express visited four settlements, including these two in Delhi, Mewat and Faridabad, and found practically unliveable conditions — with no access to drinking water, education, healthcare or sanitation. What also came to light were tales of women being denied reproductive rights and children suffering from malnutrition and diarrhoea.

Shaheen Bagh | Delhi

Noor Fatima (23) is petrified of leaving her three-month-old daughter Shazia alone even for a minute, so she takes her everywhere — including when she has to defecate next to an open drain near her shanty in Shram Vihar.

“She was a month-old when a rat bit her all over the face. I was bathing and when I came back, she was covered in blood and it was nibbling her face. Is this any way to live?” she asks.

At the slum in Shaheen Bagh, 90 Rohingya Muslim families are spread across a cluster of privately-owned plots, which they have taken on rent. They have lived here since 2012, when, like a thousand others, they fled Myanmar because of religious persecution.

Semi-naked children with protruding bellies run around, stepping on faeces, slush, used band-aids, dirty diapers, broken syringes and bloody gauze. In the midst of the settlement is a bluish mountain of medical waste, right next to one of two hand pumps put up by residents. While some Rohingya Muslims work as labourers, many search through garbage to sell items and earn a living.

“We wash utensils at this pump, bathe here, and drink this water too. Everyone is sick here — breathing problems, malnourishment and stones. The children almost always have diarrhoea,” said Mohd Younis (28), who came to Delhi from Bangladesh in 2012, after fleeing the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

rohingya refugee camps, rohingya muslims in delhi, rohingya delhi camps, rohingya camps in delhi, rohingya supreme court order, rohingya muslims unlivable conditions At the slum in Shaheen Bagh, 90 Rohingya Muslim families are spread across a cluster of privately-owned plots, which they have taken on rent. (Tashi Tobgyal)

Younis is a daily wager who, when he gets work, makes Rs 300 a day. On such days, he spends Rs 15 to buy 25 litres of water for his family of five. “When we fall sick, we rush to private hospitals, or doctors in Batla House or Bhogal. If we have the money to pay for the commute, we go to Safdarjung Hospital. Once a month, a doctor comes here and distributes medicine for fevers and aches. But those don’t last,” he says.

The ground reality is echoed in a study by the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, on the living conditions of Rohingya refugees at this camp: “They are in cramped spaces filled with smoke from makeshift kitchens with no ventilation. The proximity to the river (Yamuna) has resulted in snakes and reptiles moving around in refugee camps. The area lacks basic necessities like clean water, food or even houses.”

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), “17,500 Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers from Myanmar are registered” with it in India.

While the UNHCR has given them “refugee cards”, the Indian government terms them “illegal immigrants”. “India did not sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, so we don’t have the concept of refugees. We have illegal immigrants. The UNHCR has recognised them as refugees, not the Indian government… we are a sovereign nation and we should be able to decide who we want to give asylum to. We are not duty-bound to accept them, we have our own problems,” says Ashok Prasad, spokesperson of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

As far as providing facilities to them is concerned, he says, “The Indian government is not obliged to provide amenities to illegal immigrants; they have access to what is available to the rest of the citizens. We sympathise with their situation but they are guests, and shouldn’t demand things from the host.”

Apart from Rohingya Muslims, there are also settlements of migrants from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Assam. At noon, women and children queue up at the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) water tanker with buckets. “We can’t take this water… Other slum-dwellers say we are outsiders, so we only take water towards the end if anything is left,” says Dil Mohammad (60), a waste picker and one of the “zimmedars” of the Rohingya in the area.

DJB vice-chairman Dinesh Mohaniya says, “A water tanker is sent to Shram Vihar on alternate days… this is private land, we can’t put pipelines here.”

Life is especially onerous here if you’re a woman. Inside 11-year-old Roshida’s cardboard shanty is a small gusalkhana, where women and girls of the house bathe. A blanket covers the entrance. “I don’t like bathing under the hand pump in front of others. We defecate near the naali and men trouble us. At night, we squat outside our house, collect the waste in polythene and throw it the next day,” she said.

The slum has no public toilets. “If I ever return to Myanmar, I won’t take these toilets with me, you know,” says Dil Mohammad. Of his six children, only Roshida goes to a government school in Badarpur. “I would like to educate the others too, but I can’t afford bus fare for so many children. Plus schools ask for Aadhaar; the refugee card doesn’t work.”

Sector 86 | Faridabad

rohingya refugee camps, rohingya muslims in delhi, rohingya delhi camps, rohingya camps in delhi, rohingya supreme court order, rohingya muslims unlivable conditions From a distance, the camp looks like a dumping ground. (Tashi Tobgyal)

Even a slight drizzle scares 18-year-old Noor Kaidar — it’s a grim reminder of an evening six months ago, when her first-born died in “under a minute” inside her tarpaulin and cardboard shanty at the Rohingya Muslim refugee settlement. “There was knee-deep water everywhere because of the rain, so I couldn’t go to the hospital. Something went wrong and the baby died. There were insects floating in water, flying above me… the water had entered our jhuggi as I gave birth,” Noor says.

From a distance, the camp looks like a dumping ground. “About 100-150 people from 37 families live here. Since no one gives us a job, we are all waste-pickers,” says Mohd Ismail (26). There are no public toilets or a drainage system, but residents have built a temporary toilet. “Women use it; men and children go in the open,” says Mohd Abul Kalam (36).

The settlement has installed an “all-purpose” hand pump. A toddler bathes underneath, while women scrub clothes. “The women also bathe here, with their clothes on. It’s harder for women when they are menstruating or pregnant,” says Noor Jehan (45).

According to a UNHCR official, “most Rohingya refugees in India are poor and unskilled and are only able to find low-skilled jobs in the informal sector. In principle, all refugees in India have access to government health and education services, but sometimes they have difficulty accessing these facilities.”

Senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, who is representing Saleemullah and Mohd Shaqir, who have filed petitions in Supreme Court against the Indian government’s order to deport the Rohingya, says, “There is no precedence of such behaviour by any Indian government towards refugees because in the past we have not had such a communal, anti-constitutional government. For them, the Rohingya are Muslim refugees, not humans. They are entitled to all basic amenities listed under Article 21 of the Constitution — not just animal existence, but a right to a dignified life.”

At this camp, too, residents complain of “breathing problems, rashes, and diarrhoea”. Ismail claims four children from the camp go to a government school and 10 to a school run by an NGO. He, too, says that in the absence of Aadhaar cards or jobs, parents find it hard to provide education for their children.

Shahpur Nangli | Mewat

rohingya refugee camps, rohingya muslims in delhi, rohingya delhi camps, rohingya camps in delhi, rohingya supreme court order, rohingya muslims unlivable conditions Living in such conditions has exposed the residents to diarrhoea, malaria, skin allergies, bronchitis and asthma. (Poshali Goel)

As Almas (45) lights the chulha in her cramped house to make boiled potatoes and fish, she’s particular about the embers. Almas lost her husband last year in a fire at a low-ceiling kitchen. As she cooks, smoke fills the windowless kitchen. In the last two years, four incidents of fire have been reported from the camp.

More than 300 refugees here lead similar lives — battling fears of a fire, disease and snakebite. The four-year-old camp is the largest of six established in Mewat. Refugees have been allotted land by the Haryana government. “We provide them free drinking water and have admitted many children to government schools,” says Ashok Kumar Sharma, Mewat deputy commissioner.

Residents, however, claim they “draw water from two wells, one used to bathe and the other provided by locals out of sympathy.” Lack of water is a frequent source of fights.

While there are no public toilets, refugees have built a toilet at each home — essentially a hole in the ground — next to the kitchen.

Abdul Salam (53), who has the biggest toilet in the camp, says, “Only those with money are able to build good toilets.” As sewage collects in uncovered cesspools, locals routinely spray kerosene to get rid of the odour.

Living in such conditions has exposed the residents to diarrhoea, malaria, skin allergies, bronchitis and asthma, says Jafar Fullha, the camp coordinator, who works with the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative. Since the camp doesn’t have round-the-clock electricity, spotting snakes at night is a problem.

“Three people have died in the last four years because of snake bites… the problem is worse in the monsoon,” claims Fullha.

Kalindi Kunj | Delhi

rohingya refugee camps, rohingya muslims in delhi, rohingya delhi camps, rohingya camps in delhi, rohingya supreme court order, rohingya muslims unlivable conditions Just last year, the 46 Rohingya Muslim families had built the first set of toilets. (Manoj Kumar)

At 3.30 am on Sunday, a fire ravaged through the cramped lanes of the Kanchan Kunj Rohingya camp, gutting every single one of the 40 homes. Close to 230 Rohingyas were left homeless yet again. “We don’t know what caused it, but our homes are made of plastic and the fire spread. We couldn’t even get our UNHCR refugee cards out in time… everything is lost,” says Mohd Shaqir, a resident.

A day before the fire, The Indian Express had visited the camp. In Mohd Haroon’s 10×10 ft room were a chulha, a bed, a stack of clothes, a refrigerator, a cabinet and the Indian flag placed next to an old calendar with ‘Arakan’ written on it. “In Arakan, even our goats didn’t live in a 10×10 cage. Now we are stateless, homeless, living like animals,” said Haroon.

Also lost in the fire were hopes of building a better life. Just last year, the 46 Rohingya Muslim families had built the first set of toilets. “It’s better than earlier,” Abdul Karim (40), one of the “zimmedars” of the camp, had said on Friday.

According to Bhushan, “over a million refugees live in India, an estimated 40,000 of them Rohingya. The politics of the current government is to drive out Muslims, create hysteria, call them terrorists or claim they are eating into our resources”. MHA spokesperson Prasad, however, said, “Our intelligence assessment has suggested their links with terror outfits.”

Once a week, a doctor from Holy Family Hospital would visit the camp with basic medicines.

A fact-finding team of the Human Rights Law Network, in a 2012 report, had observed: “Children and adults bathe in full view of the camp and passing traffic. It is not surprising that chronic diarrhoea plagues the camp… they need access to medical care, safe and clean drinking water, nutrition, education.”

The camp was also home to Saleemullah and Mohd Shaqir, who had filed the petition in the SC. “We deserve to live in dignity. We are always scared of when we will be uprooted,” said Shaqir — who on Friday was oblivious of the fate that awaits his camp.

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