UN Human Rights Chief Expresses Concern Over Plight of Indian Migrants during Lockdown

The UN's human rights chief has expressed concern over the plight of millions of domestic migrants in India during the ongoing 21-day nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus, and welcomed the subsequent measures announced to address their situation, underscoring the need for "domestic solidarity and unity" to combat the epidemic.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a complete lockdown for 21 days on March 24, triggering a mass movement of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from their place of work in cities to homes in villages across India.

"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," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement on Thursday in Geneva.

Bachelet said she was "distressed" by the plight of millions of domestic migrants affected by the sudden lockdown announced in India, noting that it is important to ensure that measures in response to the COVID-19 are "neither applied in a discriminatory manner nor exacerbate existing inequalities and vulnerabilities."

The UN agency stressed that containing COVID-19 in the country, which hosts one-sixth of the world's population, will require effort not only from 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.

A migrant worker died of heart attack last week after a journey on foot of about 800 km from the national capital to his hometown in Madhya Pradesh.

Following such reports in the media, state governments have asked migrant workers to stay put and announced special measures for providing food and other facilities to them, while a few arranged special buses to ferry them to their native places.

The high commissioner welcomed the Indian Supreme Court's subsequent instruction on March 31 to ensure that migrants are provided enough food, water, beds and supplies as well as psychosocial counselling in make-shift shelters.

"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 UN human rights body noted that the Indian government has taken a number of other measures to address the situation, such as ensuring the distribution of food services on a massive scale, calling on 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," Bachelet said.

The UN agency has also asked for special measures focusing on migrant women, who are among those most economically vulnerable and impacted by the situation.

On reports of police officers beating citizens for breaking quarantine rules and migrants being doused with disinfectant, Bachelet said the agency understands the strain on the police service 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."

It noted that a number of states have now issued explicit orders to their police forces to refrain from the use of force to contain the virus.

On practice in some states of stamping hands of those quarantined in their homes and sticking notices outside the homes of people quarantined, she said, "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.