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Concern grows over Indian migrants stranded abroad

Flights from foreign countries could become highly risky for India's 1.3 billion people, top court told

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Updated: April 17, 2020 08:35 AM GMT
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Concern grows over Indian migrants stranded abroad

Asian workers sit in the shade of a palm tree during a hot summer day in Dubai. Millions of such workers are now stranded in the Middle East as governments have shut down airports to check the spread of Covid-19. (Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP)

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Millions of Indians are stranded abroad as the country's Supreme Court rejected a set of petitions seeking their evacuation after the government shut down air traffic amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

India's top court said on April 13 that the best policy was to "stay where you are" as it rejected the petitioners' plea to direct the federal government to evacuate migrants.

The government claimed an estimated 13 million Indians work or study abroad, mostly in Persian Gulf nations and Europe. But embassies are making efforts to help them, government law officer Tushar Mehta told the court.

India shut all its airports after a lockdown was announced on March 24, leaving migrants stranded in their host countries, some of them hit hard by the pandemic.

Some 10 million Indians work in Gulf nations, mostly in the unorganized sectors of construction and farming, according to UN estimates.

In the face of a raging coronavirus pandemic, most want to return home to escape cramped labor camps that lack adequate facilities, their leaders have told media.

Many groups of stranded migrants told media that they had expected Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lift the lockdown when it completed an initial 21-day period on April 14. Modi, however, extended the lockdown until May 3.

Mehta told the court that the government could not allow flights from foreign countries as it was "highly risky" for India's 1.3 billion people.

India evacuated people from China, Japan, Iran and Italy when "the coronavirus situation in India was not so grim." The evacuees were also quarantined in India, Mehta said.

However, evacuating migrants now, especially from pandemic-hit nations, could pose a danger to people in India, he said. The court agreed with the contentions and refused the plea.

At least 17.5 million people born in India live outside it, making India the world's top country for exporting migrants, according to International Migrant Stock 2019, a UN dataset.

Christian migrants

Christians form at least 19 percent of Indian migrants despite comprising barely 3 percent of the population, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center estimate. In contrast, only slightly more than 1 percent of Indian people migrate.

Roughly four million Indian Christians, mostly from the southern and western parts of India, work in the medical profession as nurses and doctors and in jobs such as seafarers and software engineers.

"Many of our people want to come back, but we have to respect the Supreme Court order," said Father Antony Thalachelloor, spokesman of the Syro-Malabar Church, based in the southern state of Kerala.

"At the moment, our country is safer compared to many others. The government needs to take adequate steps to repatriate our people stranded abroad as early as possible," he told UCA News on April 14.

Father Maria Stephen, pubic relations officer of the Catholic Church in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, told UCA News that migrant Indians are "getting restless and the court order surely disappointed them."

"It is true the government has its concerns, but it cannot indefinitely ask Indians to stay abroad. The government should initiate steps to bring back our stranded brothers and sisters soon," Father Stephen said. 

About 54 percent of people leaving India as migrants are from religious minorities, Pew data shows. Christians and Muslims together form 46 percent of migrants, while people from other minority religions constitute 8 percent.

Muslims, who form 14 percent of the Indian population, make up 27 percent of migrants. Hindus migrate much less. Although comprising 80 percent of the population, Hindus constitute only 45 percent of the migrant population.

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