In a Global Pandemic, Is it Fair for Govts to Abandon Citizens Stranded Across Borders?

Ad hocism, and not proper planning, has so far designated whether or not Indians are rescued from abroad.

Do the hundreds of thousands students, migrant labourers, pilgrims, fisherfolk – citizens of South Asia, stranded across international borders in the time of a global public health crisis – have the right to return home?

Confronting grave insecurities of health, food, shelter, information deficit and mental anxiety in resource-strained, high-risk foreign environments during a lockdown abroad and at home, do these citizens have the right to be rescued by their own governments? Some have been forgotten by their indifferent embassies, others have been asked by their governments to stay put and watch others being evacuated from high-risk environments. Are they less worthy? Are there no ‘standard operating procedures’ in times of national disasters and globalised pandemics?

National disasters are a major test of citizenship. After the storm blows over, what will this global public health crisis reveal about the moral legitimacy of the alternatives chosen, of who gets left behind, of who can be ignored in the name of ‘collateral fallout’? In a public health crisis, human rights are readily surrendered for public protection, but should we forgo the right to demand no derogation on non-discrimination, on the legitimacy of the aim and the proportionality of that aims of ‘preventing disease’ and ‘providing care’?

In the post coronavirus world, these questions will  haunt when assessing our prioritisation of the vulnerable, and how much the ethics of care shaped the response of national governments to the desperate appeals of the abandoned – stranded overseas migrants, especially students.

As one of the 800 Pakistani students stranded in Wuhan, the epicentre from where COVID-19 spread globally, was quoted as stating, “They [Pakistan] say that we cannot evacuate. Why can’t they evacuate us? Other countries have evacuated. We are thankful to the Chinese government … but we are not the responsibility of the Chinese government. We are the responsibility of our government.”

International travel bans and lockdowns have found South Asia’s migrants trapped: desperate Indian students stuck in Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Philippines and Bangladesh; Pakistani and Afghan students in China and Turkey; Bangladeshi students in India; Nepalese labour in Qatar; Bangladeshi labour in Singapore; and Indian pilgrims and seafarers in Iran.

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Videos of their urgent appeals on social media speak of students ousted from emptied hostels, crowded in makeshift accommodation, stranded in transit at airports and border ports, running out of food, water and supplies, desperate to come home to their families. In India, families of medical students from Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Kashmir have gone to court, seafarers from Goa, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Kerala have appealed to their political leaders to bring them home.

“Why are we ignored? We have families too. Are we supposed to die here?” Shanu Mariyadasan, a fisherman from Kerala in Iran is quoted as saying to Al Jazeera. Shanu is one of the thousand-plus Indian fisherfolk stranded by Gulf employers on islands in southern Iran, and marine trainee ratings left on dead boats at ports there. Iran is one of the worst affected, with COVID-19 cases peaking at 44,605 and death toll 2,898 (March 31). Iran is where the highest number of Indians overseas have the disease: 255 have tested positive. Official figures state than some 6,000 Indian nationals were in Iran at the time of the outbreak.

By end March, despite travel restrictions, more than 500 Indian students and pilgrims were flown back in batches to India. Left behind were thousands of stranded Indian seafarers. According to news reports, over the last 25 days, they have been sending out desperate SOS videos to their families, pleading for help as supplies of food and fresh water run out. They are crowded and confined to fishing boats, anxious about catching the virus and uncertain access to medical facilities. Families of poor and marginalised fisherfolk have appealed to their elected state representatives to put pressure on the Indian foreign minister to intervene. The Indian embassy in Iran, the fishermen claimed, had been unresponsive.

On March 11, Indian foreign minister S. Jaishanker in a statement to parliament said that the embassy was sequencing the return of Indian nationals in Iran depending upon their location and exposure to COVID-19 – pilgrims followed by students. “Our understanding is that the region where most fishermen are located has not been affected so severely,” he said, adding, “They are in good health.”

By the time that assurance was given, their families were viewing videos of sons and husbands suffering from hunger, thirst and at risk of infection. Ten days after the minister’s statement, the embassy mounted a 24-hour emergency relief operation to get food and supplies to 1,000 stranded fishermen in southern Iran.

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Returning home is not possible. Seafarers have been asked to stay put. A news report quotes an Indian embassy source as stating, “We have been counselling the fishermen of the lockdown in India and cooperation of all people also and hence [the need] for them to stay put and take adequate precautions, follow all health protocols and cooperate with their owners by resuming work.”

It may sound ‘natural’ and logical for the government but for fishermen and their families, it sounds like abandonment.  “We heard that a C-17 military flight was used to evacuate 50 Indian tourists and pilgrims from Tehran. If they can send a military aircraft for 50 people, why did they not consider us worthy of rescuing?” a fisherman is quoted as saying  by Sabrang India.

Stranded students, too, have faced grave uncertainties, even discrimination, over rescue and return, especially in the case of Pakistan government’s refusal to evacuate its student from Wuhan and the Indian government’s denial to allow its students in Bangladesh to cross the international land border. Ironically, at the same time as Kashmiri students from India are stuck at the landport Benapole, 200 Bangladeshi students have crossed over from India and returned home after clearing standard procedural quarantine measures.

In the context of China, since January when Beijing sounded the alert about the coronavirus spread in Wuhan in Hubei province, and the city of 11 million was put under an indefinite lockdown from January 23, international students studying at universities there appealed to their governments to evacuate them from COVID-19 ground zero. With growing desperation, 800 Pakistan students, locked inside dormitories with limited mobility, difficult access to food, at risk of infection, watched as their colleagues from India, Bangladesh, Maldives,Uganda and Liberia were evacuated. Anxious Pakistan students posted a volley of videos on social media: three women students wearing mask appealed for help, others tried to shame Islamabad by holding up India’s example and its offer to evacuate Pakistanis. At home, families staged protest marches in Islamabad.

The Pakistani government had decided not to evacuate its nationals. Pakistani ambassador Naghmana Hashmi in an interview to explained that Pakistan’s medical facilities were not able to treat patients diagnosed with the coronavirus. However, as family members back home pointed out, Pakistan’s limited quarantine facilities had not prevented the government from bringing back students and pilgrims from Iran, also hard hit by COVID-19.

Defending the government’s stand, the prime minister’s special adviser on health Dr Zafar Mirza referred to recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO). However, his statement suggested that diplomatic considerations of maintaining faith with its ally China, outweighed claims of own nationals. “We believe that right now, it is in the interest of our loved ones in China (to stay there). It is in the largest interest of the region, world, country that we don’t evacuate them now.” Later he would confirm four Pakistani students in China had got the coronavirus.

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In the latter half of March, as China’s experimental lockdown policy showed a flattening of the curve in new cases, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan broke his silence to express sympathy for the stranded Pakistani students, but continued to minimise the seriousness of COVID-19. Meanwhile, to alleviate food shortages, 17 tonnes of halal food was airlifted to Wuhan for Pakistani students. The aircraft had come to collect medical kits from China.

As Pakistan tries to convince its stranded citizens abroad that it cares equally for them, and is reviewing procedures for flying out its stranded nationals and as proof of its earnestness, special air ferries were arranged to evacuate Pakistanis stuck in Dubai and in transit in Bangkok. It is an open question how many of the Wuhan Pakistanis would echo the confident assertion of Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi: “We decided not to bring back the stranded Pakistani students in Wuhan. The same students are praising our decision today.”

Other governments in the region too have counselled their nationals to stay put. Take the 16,000 Indian students studying in the Philippines. As international travel bans and lockdowns were imposed, hundreds were stranded in transit at Singapore, or stuck for days at Manila airport before they scramble back to hostels, if open, or guest houses. Indian foreign ministry special coordinator for COVID-19 Dammu Ravi urged students to “stay put at that place because it is not in anyone’s interest, not even in their [own] interest, to come back and then think that you know it is a safe environment in some other place”.

Anxious families back home were told that overseas students and other nationals were a priority, but ad hocism in place of transparent standard operating procedures for evacuation in a public health crisis does not make for reassurance.

What will induce the Indian government to expedite the return of 200 India students stuck around Almaty airport Kazakhstan with no shelter, food, transport and a distant Indian embassy to counter the direct harassment they are confronting. Will they be directed by the Delhi high court? Responding to a petition, the court has directed that stranded students be expeditiously provided humanitarian assistance in terms of food, medical care, lodging and transportation and a nodal officer be identified). But what about the  most recent crisis group: 10,000 students in Kyrgyzstan ousted from their hostels, crowded in crammed rooms with food stocks disappearing in city under lockdown and with rising cases. Their families have appealed to the social welfare minister for help.

The protocols of India’s National Disaster Management Act 2005 and Epidemic Diseases Act 1867 were not imagined to deal with a pandemic emergency. All the more crucial, then, is trust in our public authorities and open access to information, not its subversion by surveillance regimes of today. This crisis which recognises no borders could have been an opportunity for embracing connection and cooperation, especially across the region as we protect each other.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outreach to the dormant regional forum SAARC could have been a regionally transformative initiative premised on our interdependence in this and future crisis, but as elsewhere globally this crisis has found us too looking inward.

Rita Manchanda is a researcher, writer and human rights advocate specialising on conflicts and peace building in South Asia with particular attention to vulnerable and marginalised groups. Her latest publication is Women and the Politics of Peace: Narratives of Militarisation, Power and Justice (Sage:2017).