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Feature Humanitarian Aid

Refugee housing in India reaches healthcare crisis point

BMJ 2022; 376 doi: (Published 15 February 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;376:o351
  1. Geetanjali Krishna, freelance journalist,
  2. Sally Howard, freelance journalist
  1. New Delhi
  2. London
  1. indiastoryagency{at}

Illness and disease are common in overcrowded refugee camps worldwide. Geetanjali Krishna and Sally Howard visit one camp that’s trying to find solutions as the covid pandemic turns the screw

Outside Jaisalmer in Rajasthan’s Thar desert, a red sari flutters above yellow sand, hung from a mound of stone. It indicates that someone is using the makeshift toilet with half walls. Outside it, stagnant water is pooling. Beyond it the narrow alleys with shanties on either side are home to Pakistani Hindus, mostly from the nomadic Bhil tribe, who have lived here for over 12 years.

Meanwhile, at a camp in the neighbouring state of Haryana, Rohingya refugees struggle to get back on track after a fire burnt down 32 of 35 shanties—huts built with the cheapest available materials, such as highly flammable bamboo, cardboard, and plastic.

Such a crisis is echoed in refugee camps around the world. Overcrowding, a lack of medical infrastructure, and poor water, sanitation, and hygiene conditions in these settlements now pose more of a public health danger than ever before (video 1).

Video 1

The BMJ visited the Rohingya camp in Mewat, India, where residents struggle to get clean water and healthcare

“Host governments who choose to house refugees in camps are by nature signalling that these communities are temporary residents,” says Bill Frelick, director of Human Right Watch’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Division. He adds that such communities will naturally find it harder to access national services—such as healthcare, supplies of water, sewage, and electricity, as well as shelter—that adhere to host nations’ minimum housing standards, if implemented. And despite the focus on temporariness among many host nations, the average refugee camp is inhabited for 22 years.1

Impossibility of social distancing

“Most of the common health problems faced [by refugees] are due to lack of infrastructure,” says Fateh …

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