More compassion required to seafarers, NRIs & migrants (By Cleofato Almeida Coutinho)

By Cleofato A Coutinho
20 April 2020 19:23 IST

A storm is brewing over about 7000 to 8000 Goan seafarers stranded due to Corona virus lockdown. About 1.6 million seafarers including 40000 Indian crew members are unable to leave their ships. The problem is seafarers are not treated as other international key workers like airline crew and medical professionals and as such not exempted from travel bans. Even when the European countries were imposing national travel bans, the international shipping bodies failed to secure ports being kept open crew changes and movement of crew. 

Due to Corona virus, both cargo and cruise shipping having collapsed, the Indian crew members home bound, faced the problem due to the 21 days lockdown.  The Director General of shipping instructed the seafarers working overseas on both Indian and foreign ships not to sign off after completing the contracts and return to India is permitted only in an emergency. But with closure of air traffic, even emergencies were not possible. The Indian government is accused of abandoning the seafarers. The Indian embassies claim helplessness due to the Government of India decision. The Goa government may not have much role as shipping is a central matter. But the Goa government did little to convince the Centre over Goa’s capacity to quarantine the sailors after they are repatriated. The Ports Minister Michael Lobo was clear that Goa does not have capacity to quarantine even 100 sailors. BJP is in power both at the centre and the state. It was expected to play a crucial role in convincing the Centre.

Some of them are away from their families for 9 months. The ships and cruise liners are not permitted to anchor at shores and have to be in seas. There are reports that some of the crew members are kept in isolation on the ships due to fear of infection. There have been some Covid-19 deaths also. The crew is without any work. How long can they remain in these prison condition with some suspected to be infected among them? The seafarers claim the cruise liners are prepared to bring back Indian crew, but the government is firm in view of lockdown.

Indians and Goans in particular have been migrating globally for better opportunities. About 17.5 million Indian migrants live across the world. According to UN compiled data, India is the leading country of international migrants in the world.   About 2 million Indians were in  10 countries  that have recorded highest Corona virus cases with about three lakhs itself in Italy, Iran, Spain and Germany.(Goans in UK are with Portuguese passports).  Arabian Gulf has significant large Indian populace in its work force; the lockdown in European countries and Gulf countries have brought economic activity to a halt. The Punjabis were the wise and fast ones. Nearly 40000 (some reports say 94000) Punjabis returned from Covid -19 hit countries of Italy, US and UK from February 2019 onwards. Many created problems for the Punjab administration by defying the quarantine protocol for Covid 19.

Though The Indian Government claims to have evacuated its citizens from Covid -19 world hot spots, India’s record after the imposition of lockdown has left much to be desired. Hard hit countries of UK and France, and other countries Canada and Iceland chartered Air India’s service to take back their citizens from India, but Air India refused to bring back Indians stranded in those countries. India-bound flights came empty. The government asked stranded Indians to stay put wherever they are in view of local restriction and lockdown in India. There are desperate Indians, particularly students, who have no money and according to Suhasini Haider of The Hindu, willing to do any job even if it means catching the virus.

A chunk of migrants have been rendered jobless due to halt of economic activity in United Arab Emirates. UAE has expressed the desire to repatriate them after testing them for Covid 19 and  has even offered to keep back and treat any Covid 19 positive  Indians. UAE has even threatened to impose restrictions on recruitments for countries which do not take back their citizens.

In normal times, countries which took our migrants helped us in tackling employment issues and contributed by way of remittance economy. Those countries also prospered due to the labour provided by us. Though it is a crisis time, the responsibility of security of non-citizens would not be taken by other countries without any bilateral arrangement. This does not fit into any area of International law. UAE and European countries cannot be expected to take care of Indian citizens who are rendered jobless. Looking after their wellbeing is India’s responsibility.

It is an international crisis. Economic activity is down. Nobody knows how the world will pull out of this. Inter-state migrant workers in India or Indian migrant workers in Europe or Gulf countries rendered jobless would want to go home. Particularly in crisis time, everybody wants to be with their family at home. Even if hunger brings in death, the preference would be the home place. A place   away from home and family can never provide security and psychological support. The Indian  government agreed to feed the workers wherever they are (that also does not happen!) but the migrants all over the  country  have shown that for free food, their soul is not on sale. They all want to go home and be with their loved ones. In any case disease, suffering or death is what the poor have to live with.

“There is no place like home” goes the old saying. It is really unfortunate that our Supreme Court ruled that stranded Indians cannot be flown back till travel restrictions are in place. Looking at the way the government has handled the seafarers or those wanting to come back from Europe or Gulf, it appears, that the government is worried about the increase in Covid-19 numbers. Otherwise, there is no justification for Air India flights to come back empty when there were jobless Indians wanting to come back.  A little more compassion ought to have been shown by our country in these crisis times.

The Government may not have planned for them at the time of announcing of the lockdown. Seafarers and NRIs have been demanding their repatriation. Britain and France, worse pandemic hotspots than India, took back their people despite the uncontrollable situation back home. Our Government must bring back the seafarers, stranded Indians in Europe and the jobless Indians in UAE. Of course it is pandemic time. They have to be quarantined and   Covid-19 protocols have to be followed. Other countries and Ship owners cannot be expected to look after them. When DG Shipping advised the seamen not to sign off, it was 21 days lockdown. With the restriction on international and domestic travel extended for another 19 days, it is too much to expect them to stay quarantined in the ships or places where they are not wanted.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

Blogger's Profile

Cleofato A Coutinho

Cleofato Almeida Coutinho is a senior lawyer and one of the constitutional expert in Goa. A member of Law Commission of Goa, he also teaches at Kare College of Law in Madgao.

Drop a comment

Enter The Code Displayed hereRefresh Image

Related Blogs