Distressed over the plight of India’s internal migrants: UN Human Rights chief

“More needs to be done as the human tragedy continues to unfold before our eyes,” says Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

UN Human RightsImage Courtesy:indiawest.com

As India scrambles to get up on its feet amid the 21-day lockdown issued to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, United Nations Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet has today said she was distressed by the plight of India’s migrant workers and the quarantine measures put in place by the Central government.

On March 25, immediately after the 21-day lockdown was announced in India, people started panic buying commodities because it was not made clear immediately whether essential items would be available. Migrants, who live in crowded low-income neighbourhoods and shanty-towns in cities, feared their sudden loss of income would translate into starvation and homelessness and decided to go back to their villages, walking long distances, often without food and water. More than 30 people died on this journey back home.

Bachelet said, “The lockdown in India represents a massive logistical and implementation challenge given the population size and its density and we all hope the spread of the virus can be checked,” the High Commissioner for Human Rights said. “It is nonetheless important to ensure that measures in response to the COVID-19 are neither applied in a discriminatory manner nor exacerbate existing inequalities and vulnerabilities.”

She also expressed regret at the methods employed by the governments like stamping hands of those in home quarantine and sticking notices outside the homes of people quarantined, saying that it could have a stigmatising effect on those certain sections of society.

“It is important to weigh such measures against the right to privacy and avoid measures that would unduly stigmatise people within the community, who may already be vulnerable due to their social status or other factors,” Bachelet said.

Bachelet also mentioned incidents about the police beating people with batons, including migrants, for breaking quarantine norms and migrants in the state of Uttar Pradesh being doused by disinfectant. Speaking about the same she said, “We understand the strains on police services at this time, but officers must show restraint and abide by international standards on the use of force and humane treatment in their efforts to respond to this pandemic, in accordance with the Supreme Court’s instruction.”

On March 29, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a statement asking state governments to stop these migrants from walking back and get them to adhere to a two-week quarantine period. A Supreme Court order soon followed which said that migrants be treated ‘humanely’ and be provided psycho-social counseling apart from adequate facilities like food, water, beds and other supplies.

“The Supreme Court’s order and its implementation will go a long way to ensuring the safety and rights of these vulnerable migrants. Many of these people’s lives have been suddenly uprooted by the lockdown, placing them in very precarious situations,” Bachelet said.

She pointed out that government had taken measures to address the highly tricky situation – ensuring the distribution of food services, pressing employers to pay wages and landlords to waive rents and said, “In spite of all these significant efforts, more needs to be done as the human tragedy continues to unfold before our eyes,” adding that the government should take into account the particular situation of migrant women, who are the most economically vulnerable section impacted by the situation.

She also urged the people of India to cooperate with the government to control the pandemic and asked the government to call on the civil society to help with relief measures.

Concluding her statement, Bachelet said, “This is a time for domestic solidarity and unity. I encourage the Government to draw on India’s vibrant civil society to reach out to the most vulnerable sectors of society, to ensure no one is left behind in this time of crisis.”


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