“Covid-19 and the Migrant Child”: A report

Swagata Mondal reports on a webinar titled ‘Covid-19 and the Migrant Child’ by Sreetapa Chakrabarty. organized by the Bengal Institute of Political Studies (BIPS) as a part of its Emerging Scholars Online Lecture Series on 13th June, 2020.

“The responsibility to recognize comes even before the responsibility to protect.”

Children have always continued to be rendered invisible in the mainstream migrant and refugee regime. Their status as migrants, refugees or stateless people compounded with their status as children has made position a more intrigued and vulnerable one. Even before the onset of this pandemic, many parts of the world encountered complex and protracted refugee crises and this entire pandemic has in many ways aggravated the already existing plight of child migrants, refugees and asylum seekers all over the world.

The first part of Chakrabarty’s talk focussed on some of the major instruments of the International Child Rights Framework. She referred to the Geneva Declaration on the Rights of the Child (1924), the UNCRC and the Machel Study (1996) which focuses upon vulnerable and unaccompanied children, child asylum seekers, children in camps and internally displaced children. She pointed out that despite conventions like the CAT (Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1985) providing that state parties shall ensure that ‘all acts of tortures are offences under its criminal law’, in the wake of COVID-19, migrant children continue to face harsh and brutal conditions including refusal of recognition, indefinite detention, denial of shelter and asylum, trafficking and sexual and gender based violence. Thus these principles remain restricted to rosy verbal enunciation as the ground realities clearly reflect a lack of enforceability on the part of state parties due to various reasons, with regard to protecting the rights of child migrants and refugees all over the world.

Credit: reuters via BBC

Next, Chakrabarty discussed the impact of the pandemic on various, although not strictly compartmentalized categories of migrant children. First she referred to the children of migrant workers in India. One category of these children includes those who have been left behind in the villages and towns and are dependent mainly on the remittances of their parents, especially for food security and health care expenditure. The sudden lockdown resulting in the cutting or stopping of wages/salaries has further led to increasing food insecurity among these children and most importantly, death and sickness due to hunger is making the lives of these children ever more palpable. In this context she put forward a pertinent question before the audience- has the pandemic evoked a kind of war against a particular section of the population? The second category, comprises those children who are on the move – who are traversing mile after mile along with their migrant parents, or sometimes unaccompanied, reflections of which are being shared by the media since the last two months. With reference to this she stated two instances – that of a child trying to wake up her dead mother at Muzaffarpur Railway Station in Bihar and a 12-year old girl dying under adverse conditions, while returning from Telangana to Chhattisgarh. She referred to this entire process as the culmination of an irreversible reverse migration and put forward the question that is the return of migrants, especially forceful return a durable solution in the present scenario? Chakrabarty also discussed the implications of Covid-19 with regard to the refugee and stateless children and here she specifically talked about three categories of children – detained children, children who are being forcefully pushed back by different states and unaccompanied children. She talked about the pertinent threats that detention poses to the life of a child and mentioned that currently, there are nearly 7,000 children in detention centres across the USA and more than 36 children in Chicago alone have tested Positive for COVID-19. She also brought forth the issue of children who are being forcefully returned and denied asylum which is in sharp contrast with the principle of non-refoulement, a foundational principle of International customary law. She asked a fundamental question from the perspective of the refugee and stateless children – what is home and where is home? Where to return? She referred to two instances – first that of Malaysia denying entry to a boat carrying 200 Rohingya Refugees, many of them children, and second that of the rescue of 396 Rohingya refugees by Bangladesh, who were adrift at sea for a long time and 50 of whom have reportedly died due to ailments and malnutrition. The issue of forced repatriation of child migrants needs to be addressed not only at land but also at the sea, as sea is an important factor if looked at from the regional and territorial perspective. Apart from having adverse physical impacts, factors like long journeys, pandemic and separation from the family can have an adverse impact on the neurobiological system of the children and can lead to stress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder among the child migrants. The next category are unaccompanied children who not only encounter a denial of recognition and identity but also have to endure various forms of abuses and violence. With regard to unaccompanied children, she referred to an interesting title of a report of the UNHCR and Council of Europe field research on European State Practice with regard to unaccompanied and separated asylum-seeking and refugee children. The report is entitled as – “Unaccompanied and Separated Asylum-Seeking and Refugee Children Turning Eighteen: What to Celebrate?”

However, she pointed out that even in case of accompanied children the situation is precarious and horrifying. Consider the Venezuelan refugee crisis where a woman had to flee with her 12-year old son when the armed groups tried to forcibly recruit him. This kind of vulnerability has been all the more augmented in the wake of Covid-19, especially in case of children whose parents are being denied refugee-hood and asylum grants.

children in South Sudan. Credit: Worldvision

For the refugees now, the pandemic is synonymous to “an emergency within an emergency” and hence the penultimate part of her talk revolved around the responses towards these migrant, refugee, stateless and asylum seeking children in various regions around the world, in the wake of this pandemic. She chose two dimensions – responses by the UNHCR in different parts of the world and responses by refugee-led organizations in camp settings with regard to refugee children. Since no policy/special funding has been organized on the part of states especially for migrant and refugee children, she pointed out that the lacuna still exists as far as migrant children and their survival and development is concerned. With regard to the UNHCR responses, specifically seven regions across the world were highlighted in her talk – Middle East and North Africa (MENA), West and Central Africa, East and Horn of Africa, Southern Africa, Europe, Americas and Asia and the Pacific. In these regions the UNHCR is undertaking the following activities and initiatives in the wake of Covid-19: expanding learning opportunities for children through the mechanism of connected education and e-learning facilities, for instance in places like Iraq and Southern Yemen, strengthening communication along with strengthening health and WASH services for children, attempting to prevent sexual and gender violence that are perpetrated against the refugee children, collaborating with the community mental health workers and engaging with refugees to address this crisis, sensitizing out of school girls and primary school children at risk of SGBV (South Africa), attempting to expand capacities in reception centres and intervening in cases where unaccompanied children are being held with adults and is making efforts to transfer those children to better care arrangements, as is exemplified in the case of Serbia. It is also addressing the challenge of food insecurity, resuming voluntary repatriation activities and working in collaboration with UNICEF to reopen schools (India).

Within this discussion she also highlighted the activities that are being undertaken by refugee-led organizations in camp settings, like coordinating amongst themselves and with community leaders for tasks like distribution of indigenously made face masks (Kakuma refugee camp in Africa), sensitizing refugee population and especially the migrant and refugee children and coordinating on localization and Covid-19 response among various organizations, reflected by the 8th virtual NGO consultations.

She ended her talk by arguing in favour of a regional framework for refugees and migrants in South Asia with special emphasis on women and children as states share an equal but not the lone burden in the entire migrant crisis especially in the wake of Covid-19. Regional organizations like the ASEAN and SAARC have failed in their endeavour to protect migrants and refugees, especially in ensuring adequate protection, healthcare and education to the child refugees and migrants. There’s a need to bring about a regional framework for adequately implementing the principles enunciated in the global compact for refugees and migrants and emphasized the need to implement the responsibility to protect from a humanitarian perspective especially on the part of the UN. But the responsibility to recognize comes even before the responsibility to protect, child migrants and refugees need to be adequately recognized in the mainstream migrant regime and crisis before it’s too late. She concluded by quoting from Gulzar’s poem on the pandemic and the migrant workers in India: ‘they will go to die there – where there is life.’

The webinar ended with an interactive session among the speaker, the discussants and the participants, mainly revolving around the possibilities of a regional framework addressing the plight of refugees and migrants in South Asia.

Swagata Mondal is a teacher in English and Social Studies at Eklavya Academy School, Kolkata and is pursuing M.A. in Political Science from DDE, Rabindra Bharati University. She can be reached at: sangeta544@gmail.com

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