On 20 June the United Nations observed yet another ‘World Refugee Day’. In a statement for the day the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said, “ We are marking this year’s World Refugee Day against a backdrop of a dramatic global crisis. Not only are record numbers of people forced to flee their homes, but the world is grappling with COVID-19, a disease that is still very much affecting us all. What started as a health crisis has expanded, and today many of the most vulnerable – refugees and the displaced amongst them – face a pandemic of poverty.
Yet, throughout this challenging time, we have also seen a connectedness that transcends borders. Ordinary people have stepped up to help. Host communities – especially those in low- and middle-income countries where nearly 90 percent of the world’s refugees live – have continued to demonstrate a remarkable welcome”.
For India, this theme is particularly significant because in the last few months the spotlight in the country has been on internally displaced and stateless people, besides of course refugees. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which was passed by both Houses of Parliament early in December 2019 is blatantly unconstitutional and patently discriminatory. It has come in for much criticism and plenty of protests from every quarter both from Indian and the world over. The Human Rights Council of the United Nations in a statement said, “the amended law would appear to undermine the commitment to equality before the law enshrined in India’s constitution and India’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, to which Indian is a State party, which prohibit discrimination based on racial, ethnic or religious grounds. Although India’s broader naturalization laws remain in place, these amendments will have a discriminatory effect on people’s access to nationality.” The UN Human Rights Council also wanted to be party in the petition before the Supreme Court of India. Several leading legal luminaries from all over the world, and even the Un Secretary -General have called for the immediate revocation of the CAA saying that it could render large number of people stateless!
The pandemic has also brought to focus the plight of the internally displaced people, particularly of the migrant workers. Ever since the lockdown was announced, with just about four hours’ notice on the night of 24/25 March, a humanitarian crisis unprecedented in India’s modern history, has severely disrupted the lives of India’s migrant workers. Millions of migrants have found themselves stranded without food, cash, and shelter, trying to get home. They have been subjected to violation of their fundamental rights under Articles 14, 15, 19, and 21 and often to severe police harassment on interstate borders. Many have reportedly died as a result of the lockdown, due to exhaustion en route home, starvation, suicides, police excesses, illnesses, and rail and road accidents. As per reliable sources, as many as 667 non-COVID deaths have occurred across the country. 205 of these have occurred among migrant workers en route on foot, and 114 due to starvation and financial distress. Meanwhile, the current response strategy with the provision of shramik trains, has been inadequate at best.
Over 2,000 ‘shramik’ trains have reportedly carried over 3,00,000 migrant workers in the last week of May. This accounts for about 30% of the total population. Further, this does not include those who are en route and on foot, or those who are stranded in shelters or on interstate borders, or elsewhere. As of this moment, the government of India does not seem to have any estimates on the total number of people stranded and/or en route home across the country nationally as revealed in a recent RTI. Their condition is still pathetic. In an extremely belated manner, the Supreme Court on 28 May finally gave a detailed interim order regarding the transportation of the migrants; (earlier two High Courts also highlighted the pathetic situation of the migrant workers)
The way India has been treating the tiny group of Rohingyas who have sought refuge in India in the wake of their persecution in Myanmar, is a textbook case of how inhospitable we have become as nation, which over the years has prided itself of having internalised that Sanskrit phrase from the Maha Upanishad, ‘ Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ ( “the world is one family"). Today xenophobia, jingoism, false-nationalism and exclusivism seem to have become the order of the day! This is clearly written all over particularly when one looks at the way the minorities, the Adivasis, the Dalits, the poor and the vulnerable like the migrant workers are being treated in the country today.
In his Angelus message on Sunday 21 June Pope Francis said, “Yesterday the United Nations celebrated World Refugee Day. The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the need to ensure the necessary protection for refugees too, in order to guarantee their dignity and safety. I invite you to join me in praying for a renewed and effective commitment, on the part of us all, to the effective protection of every human being, especially those who have been forced to flee as a result of situations of grave danger to them or their families.” Earlier, (on 13 May) in an advance message for the 106th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2020 (which will be observed on 27 September) Pope Francis focuses on ‘Like Jesus Christ, forced to flee: Welcoming, Protecting, Promoting and Integrating Internally Displaced Persons’. He says, “I have decided to devote this Message to the drama of internally displaced persons, an often-unseen tragedy that the global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated. In fact, due to its virulence, severity and geographical extent, this crisis has impacted on many other humanitarian emergencies that affect millions of people, which has relegated to the bottom of national political agendas those urgent international efforts essential to saving lives. But “this is not a time for forgetfulness. The crisis we are facing should not make us forget the many other crises that bring suffering to so many people”.
He gives us, “six pairs of verbs that deal with very practical actions and are linked together in a relationship of cause and effect”. These are (i) you have to know in order to understand (ii) it is necessary to be close in order to serve (iii) in order to be reconciled, we need to listen (iv) in order to grow, it is necessary to share (v) we need to be involved in order to promote and (vi) it is necessary to cooperate in order to build!
The sixteen verbs given to us by Pope Francis need to be seen as directives and even apps to ensure that every action count for the refugees, the stateless and other internally displaced persons. The COVID-19 pandemic and the recent anti-racism protests have shown us how desperately we need to fight for a more inclusive and equal world: a world where no one is left behind. It has never been clearer that all of us have a role to play in order to bring about change. Everyone can make a difference. This is at the heart of UNHCR’s World Refugee Day campaign ‘ Every Action Counts in the effort to create a more just, inclusive, and equal world.
In his message for ‘World Refugee Day’, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “Nearly 80 million women, children and men around the world have been forced from their homes as refugees or internally displaced people. Even more shocking: 10 million of these people fled in the past year alone. On World Refugee Day, we pledge to do everything in our power to end the conflict and persecution that drive these appalling numbers. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic poses an additional threat to refugees and displaced people, who are among the most vulnerable. My recent Policy Brief on COVID-19 and People on the Move called on Governments to ensure that they are included in all response and recovery efforts”.
So, responding to the plight of the refugees and other displaced, in the midst of the pandemic is certainly a major challenge. Not much will be achieved, if Governments abdicate their role of responding to the cries of this people. Only when we demonstrate that unflinching courage and transparent political to ensure that these the least of our sisters and brothers , these strangers, are made to feel welcome, protected, promoted and integrated; only when we have truly made every effort to know in order to understand them – only then we can say whole-heartedly that, ‘every action counts!’ In the final analysis, Refugees do matter!
( Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights and peace activist/writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)(Published on 29th June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 27)