Much has been said about the ongoing mass movement of migrant workers within India, triggered by the COVID-19 countrywide lockdown. It has been called by many epithets, including “the long march”. Both the civil society and government have recognised it as an event of concern. A section of the media is giving it special coverage.

But very few have referred to it as a “humanitarian crisis”, or the migrants and their families walking on highways as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) – which they are in all measure.

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A humanitarian crisis is a very specific type of event that deserves a very specific type of beyond-the-ordinary response. A delayed response, in this case, is a failed response. If help arrives late, “emergency” inevitably turns into a “disaster”.

And a “disaster” is exactly what is unfolding in India right now.

Yet, the response has been disjointed. In most parts, the state is treating a humanitarian emergency as an ordinary structural aberration, because of which lives and livelihoods are being lost. So far, at least 55 workers and their family members have perished on the road due to accidents, either run over by trains or mowed down by buses. Many others have died due to starvation, exhaustion, and police violence – the exact numbers of which remain unconfirmed.

Beyond piecemeal moves, the centre hasn’t initiated any nationwide coordinated response that such an emergency ideally deserves.

What is a ‘humanitarian crisis’ and who are IDPs?

Its risky to have a very strict or bureaucratic understanding of “humanitarian crisis”. The dynamics vary across contexts. Yet, it is good to have a common minimum understanding of what it is and why is it distinct from other types of events.

While there is no universal definition of a “humanitarian crisis” or a “humanitarian emergency”, there’s fair bit of baseline comprehension. Humanitarian Coalition, for instance, defines it as:

[…] an event or series of events that represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people, usually over a wide area.

World Vision defines “complex emergencies” as those that

[…] generally involve violence and loss of life, the displacement of populations and extensive damage to societies and economies.

The migrant worker situation in India certainly fits into these definitions.

Additionally, the migrant workers and their family members who are walking on foot for long distances to reach their homes must be treated like the ‘domestic’ equivalent of refugees or asylum seekers – or IDPs.

Sure, they have permanent or semi-permanent homes to return to, but the very act of walking, often barefoot and with heavy luggage, for hundreds of kilometers in scorching weather conditions, renders them hostage to extraordinary conditions of forced displacement. It is a complex state of exception and must be treated as such by all stakeholders.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) ‘Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement‘, IDPs are described as:

“Persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognised State border.” 

The guiding principles also emphasise on the need to “ensure that all feasible measures are explored in order to avoid displacement altogether” and if not, then take certain targeted measures, such as “proper accommodation, satisfactory conditions of safety, nutrition, health and hygiene, and non-separation of family members”.

The Indian government hasn’t done any of these so far. In fact, by sealing inter-state borders and using force to regulate movements of migrant workers, it is working in contravention of internationally-recognised norms.

India isn’t a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its Additional Protocols – the only concrete legally-binding international treaty that deals with IDPs. However, IDP protection has become part of Customary International Humanitarian Law (CIHL), which India, as a UN member state, is obligated to uphold.

If we are to call India’s national response to COVID-19 a “war”, then it also makes sense to adhere to norms that come with warmaking – such as humanitarian rules of engagement, including protection of IDPs.

Lax government response

Humanitarian emergencies require responses that are sensitive to time. They demand swift and targeted mobilisation of human and material resources, rapid deployment of personnel and creation of operational nodal points.

So far, in India, we have only seen Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and ad-hoc volunteer collectives – and to some extent, certain state governments – do that.

The central government remains reluctant, and rather, solely preoccupied with reviving the national economy. Amongst the four tranches of the “20 lakh crore” stimulus package announced so far by the union Ministry of Finance, targeted measures to mitigate the migrant displacement crisis were few and far between. Most of the reforms were either structural in nature or were aimed to breathing new life into the formal and informal economic sectors.

While the overall pandemic response of the federal and state governments comes under the ambit of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, the migrant crisis itself isn’t being treated like a ‘disaster’.

Ideally, the central and state governments should have mobilised their defence, law enforcement, civil protection and other auxiliary teams for a singular job – ensure that every single person or family walking on the road is ferried back to their homes in a safe and dignified manner.

Given the scale and scope of the crisis, the army and paramilitary forces should have been deployed to transport the walking migrant workers and their families to their villages, build emergency relief camps (with appropriate social distancing rules in place) along highways and chaperone those who are already out in the roads.

This could’ve been done through a ‘unified command structure’ that links defence, paramilitary and state police forces – a framework that has already been used in insurgent theatres, like Assam and Jammu and Kashmir.

The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) – India’s frontline disaster response force – has been mobilised to aid medical and quarantine processes around the country. But it hasn’t yet been deployed to regulate the migrant worker crisis.

This makes little sense. The kind of displacement and economic stress that millions of vulnerable migrant workers are facing at the moment mirror the aftermath of natural disasters, such as cyclones and earthquakes – situations where the NDRF would’ve been immediately deployed.

NDRF teams clearing debris during a landslide in Darjeeling, West Bengal | Wikimedia Commons

How does it matter what we call this ongoing situation?

It does because more often than we realise, discourse and language actively shape policymaking and resource mobilisation strategies. Definitional terms and popular epithets used over and over again in public spaces and media can influence how governments perceive and respond to the situation at hand.

Even the state routinely uses language to shape popular opinion. By deploying snappy terms like “War on Drugs”, “War on Terror”, “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and “Surgical Strikes”, it is able to project belligerence as benevolence, and provocation as prudence.

Point is, terms and phrases matter. In the current context in India, it could mean renewed and reformed interventions on the ground.

Characterising the ongoing internal migrant exodus in India as a “humanitarian crisis” could elevate the international response, most prominently the United Nation’s. In fact, it is incumbent upon UN agencies working in India to formally label the ongoing migrant worker situation as a “humanitarian crisis” so that funds and resources can be mobilised with greater urgency and higher donor interests.

As of now, only the UN human rights chief, Michele Bachelet, and the UN Resident Coordinator in India, Renata Dessallien, have expressed concerns about the migrant crisis. But even they seemed to have missed the need to reframe the current situation as a “humanitarian crisis”, thus underplaying the severity of it.

India and its international partners need to shift gears in how they approach the migrant worker crisis, and respond to it like any other man-made disaster.

The time for soft interventions and long-term measures was long gone. It is now time to redirect the bulk of national and international resources to easing the extreme distress of the “long marchers” in a time-bound manner, lest more bodies start piling up on highway kerbs and railway tracks.

Views are the author’s own.

Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. He tweets at @angshuman_ch.

Featured image: Migrant workers leave on foot to walk hundreds of kilometers to their hometowns and villages during the COVID-19 lockdown in India | Image by Rajesh Balouria from Pixabay