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Remarks by Secretary (CPV & OIA) during Regional Consultations (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, ILO) on Evacuation and Repatriation of Migrants during COVID-19

Posted on: July 09, 2020 | Back | Print

Your Excellency Mr. Ravinatha Aryasinha, Foreign Secretary, Sri Lanka
Your Excellency Dr. Khalilur Rahman, Additional Foreign Secretary, Bangladesh
Your Excellency Mr. Bharat Raj Paudyal, Joint Secretary, Nepal

Excellencies, Namaskar and good morning from New Delhi.

1. A warm welcome to this virtual meeting on ‘Evacuation and Repatriation of Migrants during COVID-19’. I am delighted to welcome Director of ILO Dr Dagmar Walter, for this is her brainchild, and her team, for supporting this regional meeting as technical partner and for moderating the session. I wish to specially recognise Additional Secretary Dammu Ravi, Coordinator of Covid Cell in the Ministry, responsible for all matters pertaining to our response to the pandemic. We are also joined by Joint Secretary Ramu Abbagani, Principal Secretary Ellangovan from Kerala and Dr. Manish Kumar from NSDC.

2. Excellencies, COVID-19 has emerged as the biggest challenge to humanity in the 21st century. This invisible enemy has infected people in millions and killed in hundreds of thousands. It has profoundly affected our societies and our way of life. No part of the world remains untouched. Some called it a black swan event, but it is clear that we need to be prepared for such exigencies and such situations may return. This dialogue is part of an exercise to share experiences and develop a coordinated response with wide participation of all countries.

3. The pandemic is disrupting our established practices, norms and regulations. The socio-economic impact will last longer than the pandemic itself. It has slowed down economic activity. Analysts believe the cumulative loss from the pandemic may be 10% of global GDP. IMF predicts a 3% contraction of the world economy in 2020, the largest since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Global poverty and unemployment levels will rise; we have to review our economic plans. Expatriate workforces will be impacted; we have to find new options for them. Remittances are falling; we have to seek new investments.

4. India took early action to combat coronavirus. Within days, the Ministry set up the Covid Cell to manage the fallout and 24X7 hotlines to provide credible information to citizens abroad. Starting with travel restrictions in late January, airport screening in early February and travel ban in mid March, we moved into a nationwide lockdown in late March. A high value attached to human life shaped our approach. The response developed red, orange and green zones and containment zones to manage the spread. Meanwhile, we ramped up healthcare preparedness, testing over 1 lakh people daily and strengthening contact tracing. Arogya Setu App helped. The virus spread rate slowed, with doubling rate at 18 days, compared to 3 days initially and the recovery rate improving to over 60%. The contagion however continues to grow but its rampant spread has been checked. Vaccines and medicines are on the way for medical solutions and India remains committed to collaborating to find solutions and share them.

5. As a nation with over 31 million diaspora, including 18 million citizens overseas, the pandemic was a major challenge. For us, the welfare and protection of our citizens abroad is a key priority. Initially we organised evacuation missions for our citizens from China, Italy and Iran (where the contagion took early roots). Subsequently, we closed our air-space, in line with domestic lockdown norms, but opened up with easing of movements within the country.

6. Government commenced repatriation operations under Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) on 7 May, 2020 to facilitate the return of Indian nationals stranded abroad,but having compelling reasons, in a phased manner. These operations involved non-scheduled commercial flights by Air India and later other airlines, ships of the Indian Navy in Op Samudra Setu and land border crossings. The Vande Bharat Mission is the largest, most complex and challenging exercise ever undertaken by the government for repatriation of our nationals stranded overseas, despite our earlier experience in Libya, Kuwait, Yemen and others. It involved coordination with foreign governments, their Embassies in India, our Embassies abroad, and internally with Ministries such as Home, Civil Aviation, Health and the State governments. Our Covid team with its team of State Coordinators worked hard to keep flights active to bring home our stranded citizens.

7. In the first 3 phases of VBM (as of 3 July 2020), 5 lakh Indians from 137 countries returned home (risen to almost 5.8 lakhs at present), out of over 6 lakhs who had registered their interest with our Embassies across the world. This involved 860 Air India and 1256 chartered flights and 8 ship voyages. While over 4 lakhs returned on flights, over 90,000 returned through land crossings and the rest came on ships. UAE saw more than 160,000 Indians return home, while Kerala saw the largest number of returnees.Our efforts are ongoing, Phase 4 of VBM has been in effect from 3 July 2020.

8. MEA assisted safe evacuation of over 1.2 lakh foreign citizens from 118 nations stranded in India during the lockdown. Besides, several citizens from our neighbourhood also returned on VBM fights.

9. MEA developed a dynamic online platform available toall stakeholders for seamless integration, data applications and success of the Mission. From online registration with Embassies by Indian citizens seeking to return home, to preparing flight manifests by airlines, to updating data for immigration and health authorities, to their reception by State Governments; all is based on this repatriation portal. Lately, it has also being used for skill mapping for returning workers and professionals.

10. Due the humungous demand for repatriation and the limited resources available, priority criterion had to be set. These included those facing deportation; migrant workers who had been laid off or faced visa expiry; those with medical emergency; pregnant women and the elderly; those with family emergencies; tourists stranded abroad; students whose educational institutions/hostels were closed; and others. These facilities were subsequently extended to non-citizen diaspora members as well. The other key issue was to have close coordination with State Governments to ensure that quarantine and other facilities were in place for the returnees; again a task done efficiently by MEA’s Covid team.

11. Excellencies, one of the salient features of the Vande Bharat Mission was the willingness to constantly adapt to new information, evolving situation and best practices globally. External Affairs Minister was personally reviewing the VBM operations. Our Embassies were at the forefront and coordinated with community associations to provide food, shelter and even emotional support to stranded Indians.

12. Innovations were many. Our Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) were updated in innovative ways to address new challenges. Foreign carriers were used for bringing back Indians stranded in remote areas of Latin America, Africa and parts of Europe. During VBM, screening and,in some cases, testing of passengers was done before departure, to prevent spread of the virus. Out of more than 5 lakh returnees, only 941 Covid positive cases were detected, which translates to 0.188%. We modified mandatory institutional quarantine of 14 days, and reduced it to 7 days institutional quarantine and 7 days home quarantine, thereafter. Rigorous screening and testing by Health Ministry and State Governments helped to detect these cases and build confidence in the system.

13. Excellencies, the management and welfare of returning migrants is another pressing requirement. In our federal system, State Governments take the lead in providing welfare and rehabilitation measures and GoI shares resources. NSDC launched an initiative ‘SWADES’ (Skilled Workers Arrival Database for Employment Support), to conduct a skill mapping of the returning citizens under VBM. SWADES provides a skill database to match with demand of Indian and foreign companies and facilitate reintegration of migrant workers in labour markets.

14. MEA provided a platform for dialogue between stakeholders to help migrants interact with human resource agencies, industry, skill councils and NGOs. This has linked migrants to employment in public or private sectors or to new migration routes overseas or to possibilities of reskilling and upskilling.

15. As part of India’s outreach and our belief that the world is one family, Prime Minister Modi organized an extraordinary SAARC leaders’ Summit over video conference on 15 March. A number of initiatives were launched, including commitment of $ 10 million toward health and medical assistance, while coordination in repatriation followed. Later, similar meetings were organised at G-20, BRICS and even bilaterally. India supplied essential medicines, especially hydroxychloriquine and paracetemol, and medical equipment to combat COVID pandemic to over 150 countries. Our medical teams reached out to the Indian Ocean countries and Gulf region to supplement their domestic capacities.

16. At the same time, we remained committed to the larger international effort to find a vaccine and to improve treatment protocols. We are ready to contribute to the quest for a vaccine; to make any such candidate vaccines at mass scale and at affordable price points; as well as in the production of affordable medicines to treat the disease.

17. Excellencies, we are convinced that the way ahead is through cooperation at several levels. We have to be prepared that such situations may recur, we have to strengthen capacity and deepen coordination.There is a new normal emerging and we have to be ahead of the curve.

18. I hope today’s meeting will stimulate constructive discussions in our common endeavour and promote inter-government cooperation through exchange of information and experiences and benchmarking of best practices. I look forward to hearing your experiences and good practices.Thank you.

New Delhi
July 09, 2020