Over the last month of lockdown, distressed migrants who work as daily wage labourers in cities like Mumbai and Delhi have been returning to their native homes to escape starvation and job losses. This has led to unintended mass gatherings at bus stations, protests fueled by fake news and an increased risk of coronavirus clusters. Now, a World Bank report has found that after India entered a nationwide lockdown on March 23, more than 40 million migrants have been deeply affected.
A new report titled ‘COVID-19 Crisis Through a Migration Lens’ examines how containment measures implemented by various countries have impacted their migrant labour force. In India, a mass exodus of 50,000 to 60,000 migrants travelling, often on foot, from their urban workplaces to their rural homes took place, considering the lockdown came into effect with not much advance notice. The report found that the magnitude of internal migration in the lockdown was two-and-a-half times more than that of international migration.
“Lockdowns, loss of employment, and social distancing prompted a chaotic and painful process of mass return for internal migrants in India and many countries in Latin America,” the report states. Thus, the COVID‐19 containment measures might have contributed to spreading the epidemic.” This essentially means that while measures like lockdowns are an important aspect of flattening the curve, its announcement wasn’t accompanied by a system to ensure that the migrants, many of whom have faced death due to starvation, were taken care of. Additionally, the misinformation and chaos that has been running rampant may have made these migrants feel the need to cross inter-state borders in search of safety. However, this movement could have contributed to increasing the cases of coronavirus if any of these migrants had symptoms of the novel virus, especially since many of them had to walk for hundreds of kilometres after travel services were suspended.
The report stresses that “governments need to address the challenges facing internal migrants by including them in health services and cash transfer and other social programs, and protecting them from discrimination.” Evacuating stranded migrants, promoting health awareness campaigns to bust misinformed myths and providing remittances were offered as solutions to make the migrants feel more protected.
While India was praised for aiding the evacuation of immigrants stuck in Iran and China, the country was also criticised for not responding with effective and swift action for its local migrants. It also talks about how international migrants are more vulnerable to the loss of employment and economic implications as compared to the country’s natives. It further theorised that lockdowns in labour camps and dormitories could also increase the risk of contagion among migrant workers.
The report observes that government policy responses to the COVID-19 crisis haven’t been inclusive for migrants and their families back home, and said that given the externalities associated with the health status of an entire population in the face of a highly contagious pandemic, integrating them in the near-term health strategies was important.
Follow Shamani Joshi on Instagram.