Govt of India should work shoulder-to-shoulder with NGOs who are providing relief

Michelle Bachelet of Chile, newly-appointed as the next UN High Commissioner for Human Rights by Secretary-General António Guterres.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) note on UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet expressing distress over plight of India’s internal migrants, welcomes measures to limit impact: 

UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet has said she was distressed by the plight of millions of internal migrants affected by the sudden announcement of a lockdown in India. She welcomed subsequent measures to address their situation but noted that pervasive challenges remain.

“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.”

Following the announcement of the lockdown to limit the spread of COVID-19, many impoverished migrants were left without work and unable to pay for their rent and food. Without the ability to sustain themselves in urban centres and in light of the almost complete shutdown of public transportation, hundreds of thousands of migrant men, women and children were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres trying to reach their villages and home States. Some have died making the journey.

On 29 March, in an effort to contain the spread of the virus, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order to States to intercept migrants on their way home and require them to enter quarantine for a two-week period. The High Commissioner welcomes the Supreme Court of India’s subsequent instruction on 31 March to ensure that migrants are provided enough food, water, beds and supplies as well as psychosocial counselling in shelters that should be run by volunteers instead of security forces, and that they should be treated in a humane manner.

“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.

The Government has taken a number of other measures to address the situation such as ensuring the distribution of food services on a massive scale, pressing employers to pay wages and landlords to waive rents. “In spite of all these significant efforts, more needs to be done as the human tragedy continues to unfold before our eyes,” the High Commissioner said. Special Measures should also take into account the particular situation of migrant women, who are among those most economically vulnerable and impacted by the situation.

Earlier this week, reports and images emerged of police officers beating people, including migrants, with batons for breaking quarantine rules and returning migrants being doused with disinfectant. “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.” A number of States have now issued explicit orders to their police forces to refrain from the use of force to contain the virus.

The High Commissioner also expressed regret at measures that have the effect of stigmatising sections of society, including migrants, such as the practice in some States of stamping hands of those quarantined in their homes, reportedly to ensure that they stay home, and sticking notices outside the homes of people quarantined.

“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.

Containing COVID-19 in the country that hosts one-sixth of the world’s population will require efforts not only by the Government, but also the population at large. The High Commissioner encouraged the Government to work shoulder-to-shoulder with civil society on the response – including many NGOs who are already providing relief.

“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,” Bachelet said.

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