Putting the right information in the hands of refugees and service providers in India during COVID-19

Date: Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Author(s): Zoya Khanday

India’s vaccine drive has barely reached its significant population of displaced people, despite government initiatives. UN Women and UNHCR partnered up to conduct online dialogues with health experts, refugee communities and service providers to dispel myths, provide health information and how to access support.

Two online “Ask the Health Expert” sessions were held last month, to address the concerns of refugee communities, local service providers and community leaders on how to access vaccines, health information and other services to help face the COVID-19 pandemic.

The dialogues were organized by UN Women and UNHCR, the Refugee agency of the United Nations, as part of the Multi-Partner Trust Fund Programme on Protection of Women and Girls from Sexual and Gender Based Violence in times of COVID-19 in India.

India hosts more than 200,000 refugees at this time. The pandemic has brought unprecedented losses and increased risks to its refugee, migrant and displaced populations.

Although the on-going vaccination drive includes refugees and asylum-seekers, only 6,561 have been vaccinated as of June 2021, according to UNHCR. As majority of refugees are employed in the informal sector, they have also been hit hard by job losses, but lack access to financial aid through government schemes.

While the government has implemented many measures to respond to the pandemic, refugees and displaced people, including refugee women and girls, have been unable to access essential services and commodities, or benefit from government assistance programmes. There is often lack of clarity and information, even among public officials and service providers, about their legal status, documentation requirement and entitlements.

Held virtually on 17 and 27 July, the three-hour-long sessions featured UN Women’s in-house medical experts, Dr Bhavya Pundir and Meblin Rositta, who provided health information, advice on COVID-19 management, vaccination and prevention methods, and answered questions from the participants, who included 160 people from the Rohingya and other refugee communities.

“During the last two lockdowns, there has been a significant rise in unemployment within the community,” shared a female refugee health volunteer from Jaipur, India.

“All men have lost their jobs and are sitting at home, which ultimately makes it difficult for us to manage our regular household activities. This created both physical and mental distress for women in the community,” she said. “The session helped us understand clearly, in our language, a lot of important information. We will pass on these valuable messages to other members of the community.”

During another segment of the session, UNHCR highlighted the need for and value of a gender-responsive response during the pandemic. This includes making sure women and girls do not lose access to the resources and services that help safeguard them against abuse. 

“Not only has the burden of care fallen on refugee women and girls as first responders in their communities, the pandemic has also led to an increase in violence against refugee women and girls. UNHCR and partners are organizing individual/group sessions by phone, WhatsApp, and other platforms,” said Swati Varma, Senior Protection Assistant, from UNHCR.

The UN Women-UNHCR sessions also addressed information and awareness needs regarding sexual and reproductive health services and how and where to access support when refugee women and girls experience violence. “During the pandemic, violence against women has spiked across India, including among refugee and displaced women,” explained Vishishta Sam, Programme Coordinator with UN Women India. “While shelters and services for survivors have remained open even during lockdowns as essential services, refugee communities lack access and information to existing support systems.”

Under the Multi-Partner Trust Fund, UN Women is working to improve all women’s and girls’ access to gender-sensitive justice mechanisms and gender-responsive and age-appropriate services for survivors. The programme also supports livelihood training programmes so that women can earn a decent income and negotiate violence-free relationships.

With lively discussions, the sessions dispelled myths and misinformation that drive vaccine hesitancy, especially among women and girls, and provided up-to-date information on latest guidelines and support available through the government for refugees and asylum-seekers.

Frequently asked questions addressed by the health experts

What documents do refugee and asylum seekers need to register for the vaccine?

Official identification is usually required to register for vaccination in India. But the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on 6 May lifted this obligation for COVID-19 vaccinations, stating that they may not be denied to those without identification documents. UNHCR and its partners are assisting with enrolling refugees and asylum seekers in the vaccination programme, along with Indians who are lacking identification documents.

How are refugees being supported on issues related to mental health?

UNHCR and partners are working to increase services and support for psychosocial and mental health issues. In the absence of in-person meetings because of COVID restrictions, they are organizing individual and group sessions by phone, WhatsApp, and other platforms, and ensuring access to medication for those with severe mental health issues.  

Edited by Urjasi Rudra and Christopher Dickson