IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON REFUGEES/STATELESS/MIGRANTS

With a global humanitarian crisis glaring at us in the form of a pandemic- COVID-19, it becomes indispensible to talk about how the refugees and migrants are under major risk. Nikita Chakma reports on the plight of the refugees and migrants in India amidst the pandemic.

The past decade, especially after the 2008 recession and Syrian War has proved to be crucial in regard with the developments of migration crisis where Refugees/Stateless/IDP’s as migrants have undeniably suffered the most. Almost all the continents except Australia have witnessed some form of displacement through conflict. In Africa Sudanese refugees were displaced due to civil war, then the Nigerian Refugee crisis was triggered by offensives carried out by Islamist group like Boko Haram. The Rohingya refugee crisis is the second biggest in Asia after Syrian refugee crisis. Then the Iraqi and Afghan Refugees who have been suffering eviction from their own lands since 1990’s due to a series of conquests by Soviet Union, US military and organizations like the Taliban.(i) The current refugee crisis has proved to be worse than that of the WWII refugee crisis and with the number of nations supporting more populist, majoritarian, anti-migrant ideologies the refugee crisis is only going to deepen further.

India & Global response towards managing the refugee issue in past…

India has been criticised for never laying uniform laws on refugees, like it chose not to sign the 1951 convention nor has any particular law specially been made for the protection & inclusion of refugees. But internationally too, the role of big nations and organizations in reducing the number of refugees & stateless persons hasn’t been very remarkable either. The reason why countries have failed to address the issue of refugees is because most nations see the refugee’s stay as something ‘temporary’. So, instead of giving them permanent residency they provide services to the refugees on ‘Ad hoc’ basis and  make them live their whole lives under temporary asylum status (like how the Pakistani & Afghan refugees are living on visa basis)(ii) Those who acquire permanent residency, do so after a longer wait only.  Thus, the refugees stay marginalized in that sense with fewer rights and opportunities. 

Unlike the US & Europe which harbors an extreme-right sentiment against migrants and refugees that resulted in Brexit, 2017 (iii), India on the other hand still has a more neutral approach towards the issue of refugees. In the past itself, India has shown its support to accepting refugees especially in the case of Tibetan refugees to which it even approved of functioning a govt. in exile. Also, the Indira-Mujib Accord signed between India-Bangladesh under the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, which granted asylum to thousands of minorities (mostly Hindu) from Bangladesh who were persecuted during the Liberation War, 1971. Yet after such welcoming acts by India, It still doesn’t get the recognition from the world organizations and countries due to its sole decision to not be part of the 1951 convention nor the 1967 convention on statelessness. In this way India has managed to tweak its laws on refugees and migrants. The Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 again shows it ‘selective support’ towards refugees and stateless by only opening its borders to these religions- Hindu, Parsi, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains & Christians from three neighbouring nations namely-Bangladesh, Afghanistan & Pakistan. The fact that it left Muslims out of this Act again shows the inherent reasons why India chose not to sign any of the conventions on refugees which makes its countries obliged to not to discriminate any asylum-seeker based on religion. (iv)

Challenges faced by refugees and stateless persons..

Refugees and stateless persons suffer from many human rights violations –like trafficking, displacements, genocides and xenophobia. The biggest threat to a refugee is the threat to their identity. In their countries of origin the refugees are under constant fear of persecution then once they arrive in the host countries as asylum-seekers they again draw the ire of the local indigenous populace who see them as possible threat to their culture and language.(v).The ordeal of a refugee never ends in that sense. Possession of documents is the second biggest challenge. Once you are in the host country you would require documents of you belonging to that country (process of citizenship) and that can take a long and tedious time. Your right to work, education and movement will be curtailed if you don’t possess the required documents. Majority of the post relocation problems to refugee’s protection depends on the political atmosphere of the host country, whether the ruling party and general public opinion towards the refugees is one of solidarity or not. Otherwise the refugees and migrants become target to racism and xenophobia.

A woman from a Rohingya family, in the makeshift hut provided by a NGO Zakat Foundation of India near Madanpur Khadar, New Delhi. EPA(xv)

The current novel Coronavirus has presented us with set of challenges that even the most developed nations of the world like America, France and UK are struggling with. These countries despite having the best healthcare infrastructure have shown highest number of mortality rates due to COVID-19. For India the COVID-19 along with some seriously untactful and hasty decision-making (reminiscent of the demonetization exercise of 2016) led to the biggest migration crisis in the recent decades. The migrants were distraught with panic that resulted with the way the lockdown was imposed; no one was informed or given any time to prepare. The swamping of migrants at the Anand Vihar railway station, the mass protest by angry migrants in Mumbai right after the PM’s speech on lockdown getting extended, followed by the 16 migrants who died after being mowed by a goods train and the millions of migrants walking on foot to reach home have seared us with some of the most disturbing images(vi).Certainly, refugees constituted a large portion of the migrants being affected by a crisis of such level. Other than the standard challenges faced by the refugees they had to face newer challenges amidst this pandemic, such as-

  1. Firstly, many refugees and asylum-seekers could have faced more human rights violations in the form of neglect from the government, many countries had to impose lockdowns which meant many voluntary services such as ones provided by UNHCR and other NGOs that cater to refugee protection services like applying for asylum status and other documents was stopped abruptly, which could have left many incoming refugees stranded.
  2. Many refugees who were living in camps, where ‘social distancing’ couldn’t be practiced made them increasingly, susceptible to the virus. With the restricted healthcare services and lack of social distancing measures led to many refugees and migrants getting infected. When the ‘Operation Unlock’ was initiated then many migrants unfortunately became carriers of the virus to other states.(vii)
  3. Migrants and Refugees of certain physical features especially of ‘oriental features’ became target to the xenophobia and racism induced by stereotypes relating people to certain diseases. There was definitely a spike in the number of cases of discrimination against certain refugee groups and communities who had more oriental features during this pandemic(viii)
  4. Most refugees are working as economic migrants mostly in the form of labour migrants. The lockdown led to lakhs of migrants losing out work and for some their only sources of income. This caused unthinkable distress for the migrants and refugees who had families to look after back in their villages. The Indian government’s less than satisfactory efforts to give monetary support especially to the unorganized labour sector was seen as mockery of the migrant’s condition. Instead it tried to capitalise on this too by charging exorbitant train fares for their journey back to their home states(ix)
  5. Women were twice more likely to suffer in the pandemic. Women migrants get paid less twice than the male migrants, also are less likely to get hired. The incidences of sexual crimes like trafficking also doubles during any crisis. Even amidst a pandemic the voice of sex workers and transgenders doesn’t find a space, people forget that even they are migrants who send remittances back home(x). Not to forget the tremendous impact on their mental health, women who are more likely to suffer from clinical depression, this period of crisis has shot up cases of suicides and mental illness to another level.

Way ahead for refugee’s protection & integration amidst Covid-19

Most nations were little prepared for a crisis of such scale which has left not a single nation unscathed, but that in this crisis too refugees, stateless and migrants were to be the most vulnerable and affected group was no shocker.

The world will probably enter into second wave of the pandemic so it’s likely to see more lockdowns and border controls taking place. This only means more hardships and wait for the refugees/migrants/stateless who are stuck, especially for those who want to leave due to unstable political conditions. The US even during the pandemic imposed strict border controls for refugees and migrants, and expelled some 10,000 migrants back to Mexico thus committing ‘refoulement’. (xi) Many EU countries have tightened their borders too in fear of the virus travelling easily due to shared borders especially Greece and Turkey (xii). There is need for greater cooperation on part of all nations to ensure the protection and security of all migrants and refugees especially those living in camps.

Photo by Jaap Arriens/ NurPhoto via Getty Images

Speaking of the Indian government, it should ensure enough food security for the refugees and migrants as experts are predicting food scarcity in the near future due to less production and more bulk hoarding. The govt.’s 20 lakh cr relief package to the migrant workers was a welcome move but it’s not going to be enough to feed a population of 1.3 crore (xiii). The government should partner more with the various NGOs and humanitarian organizations who have engaged the most with the relief work for migrants and refugees directly. Organisations that are working refugees specifically (which are very few) such as UNHCR and other organizations can come up with a ‘uniform programme’ for the refugees to help them with issues of food security and economic sustenance during this period. Rules pertaining to asylum-status and application for certain basic schemes should be relaxed for the refugees and stateless amidst this pandemic. Govt. should also keep the xenophobic and racist elements towards migrants and refugees on check. It shouldn’t allow these things to escalate, at a time like this which requires every human every nation irrespective of their ideologies to fight it out together.

Women refugees and migrants should be given more protection from harassment, layoffs and diseases. Care and nutrition of pregnant women should be given attention as the new born babies and elderly will be the most vulnerable to the virus. Children of the refugees and migrants whose education is suffering due to the lockdown hence been compelled to study online, steps should be taken to ensure that children are engaged in some form of learning. Many children do not have access to technology to attend classes, Schools and Universities should actively try to bridge the gap between the technologically underprivileged and the privileged. With all the dire events that have been unfolding since the beginning of this year and the response towards the issue of refugees protection in the past few years which has been abysmal, the refugees/stateless/migrants might have many more challenges to face, it all depends on how the different nations are going to handle this crisis, whether unitedly or by being ego-centric.

Nikita Chakma is a Mphil student of Social Work, University of Delhi, New Delhi. Her research focuses on refugees and stateless persons in India. She can be reached at communicate.nikitachakma@gmail.com

Cover image: Migrant workers walk towards a bus station along a highway with their families as they return to their villages, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, March 29, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

ENDNOTES:

  1. Dawn Chatty (2010) Dispossession and Forced Migration in the 21st-century Middle East and North Africa, Bulletin for the Council for British Research in the Levant, 5:1, 39-42, DOI: 10.1179/175272710X12828116506035 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/175272710X12828116506035
  2. Sikh, Hindu refugees from Afghanistan torn between identity and livelihood,  13 Jan 2019, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/sikh-hindu-refugees-from-afghanistan-torn-between-identity-and-livelihood/articleshow/67512034.cms?from=mdr
  3. Brexit and the Refugee Crisis: Human Rights Trumped by Nationalistic Fervour,22 Nov 2018 https://observatoryihr.org/blog/brexit-and-the-refugee-crisis-human-rights-trumped-by-nationalistic-fervour/
  4. Exclusionary Nationhood Hiding Behind the Veneer of Liberal Citizenship , 17 April,2020 https://www.epw.in/engage/article/research-radio-podcast-citizenship-amendment-act-anupama-roy
  5. The Integration of Migrants and Refugees: Challenges and Opportunities,7 October,2016 https://www.oecd.org/migration/integration-of-migrants-and-refugees-challenges-and-opportunities.htm
  6. Perception, Legality and Politics of the Migrant Worker Crisis in Lockdown-The Wire.  15 May 2020 https://thewire.in/labour/migrant-worker-crisis-lockdown
  7. India, unlocking, is among 15 high-risk nations: Study 10 June 2020 https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-unlocking-is-among-15-high-risk-nations-study/story-qv9MXw9Sv5ccLlVD9pe1VK.htm
  8. ‘Beaten, abused, spat on’: People from Northeast endure racist slurs amid coronavirus panic, The Print. 25 March 2020 https://theprint.in/india/beaten-abused-spat-on-people-from-northeast-endure-racist-slurs-amid-coronavirus-panic/387716/
  9. Migrants made to pay ”highly unjustified” Rs 800 as train fare, SC told-Outlook , 4 May, 2020 https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/migrants-made-to-pay-highly-unjustified-rs-800-as-train-fare-sc-told/1823892
  10. Just-1-of-Transpersons-and-Sex-Workers-Receive-Government-Relief-So-Far- The Citizen.in ,12 June 2020 https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/NewsDetail/index/7/18870/Just-1-of-Transpersons-and-Sex-Workers-Receive-Government-Relief-So-Far
  11. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/17/us-asylum-seekers-coronavirus-law-un
  12. ‘Coronavirus Is Spreading across Borders, But It Is Not a Migration Problem’, on March 2020 https://www.migrationpolicy.org/news/coronavirus-not-a-migration-problem
  13. India’s Rs 20 lakh crore Covid relief package one among the largest in the world, 15 May,2020 https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/finance/latest-stimulus-package-among-largest-in-the-world/articleshow/75701976.cms

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