By Astha Bhattacharya, a 2nd Year, B.B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) student at National Law University, Odisha
The onset of the Covid-19 crisis exposed the crippling health infrastructure as well as the socio-economic gap prevalent in our nation. Its impact has been multi-faceted but however, the consequences suffered by the migrant workers, especially their children who are one of the most vulnerable population, has been unimaginable.
Since the first wave of the pandemic struck in March 2020, the Central and subsequently the State governments have imposed stringent lockdown and curfews resulting in over 80% of workers of the informal sector losing their jobs, and having no other means to sustain their livelihoods. This emergency resulted in a mass migrant exodus from urban localities to rural areas with many families undertaking this journey on foot along with their children. There were numerous disturbing reports of young children dying while walking hundreds of kilometres to their native villages as well as female migrant workers giving birth to children on road.
The children of the migrant workers can be categorized into three divisions. The first group compromises children who continue to reside in their homes while their parents undertake employment elsewhere. The second category consists of children who travel with their parents and lastly, it includes children who themselves migrate for employment. The children under each of these categories have suffered silent exploitation during this ongoing pandemic which has been ignored by the majority of the people of our nation. This article primarily aims to study in what ways and means were the migrant children affected during the pandemic and how their fundamental rights were infringed upon different frontiers and levels. It additionally mentions the possible solutions to the present issue.
Impact of Poverty on Migrant Children
With over 97% of the Indian population becoming poorer and urban employment reaching 14.71%, loss of job and food insecurity has become a severe issue for migrant workers and their families. Due to the reduced employment opportunities, death of one or both the parents and to supplement the family income, many migrant children have started working as unskilled labourers. These children started working in brick kilns and other hazardous places resulting in poor health and nutritional outcomes.
Moreover, the children who were left behind in their villages were dependent on the remittances provided by their parents. About 10% of the rural families receive remittances, which is a primary source of livelihood for these households. However, due to COVID-19, many migrant workers could not send back these remittances leading to adverse effects on the health and food intake of these children.
Furthermore, the relaxation of the labour laws in 2020, for helping the businesses to recover provided a small window for exploitation of these migrant children as “cheap labour”. The unavailability of adult migrant workers (due to them moving back to their villages) would only lead to more children working in factories where cleanliness, overcrowding, sanitation, urinal requirements and other such necessities have been suspended. This would eventually lead to a mass influx in the number of child labourers, a matter which only got aggravated due to the pandemic situation.
The Health Condition of Migrant Children
When it comes to basic services, many migrant workers and their children encounter discrimination. During the time when clean water, sanitation, and hygiene are critical to combating the spread of the virus, they are often kept in overcrowded labour camps and quarantine facilities with inadequate WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) facilities making social distancing unachievable.
Adding onto this issue is the fact that children on the move have the risk of contracting other health problems such as malnutrition and non-communicable diseases which can be backed by the reports showing an increase, during the pandemic, in severely wasted and underweight children under the age of 5.
Due to the overcrowded healthcare systems, altered nutritional patterns, and economic loss, as well as the interruption of initiatives like the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and the mid-day meal, the pandemic is becoming a nutritional catastrophe.
Furthermore, as a result of the virus, many migrant workers are suffering from mental health issues. Dealing with the loss of parents or close ones, lack of job security, fear of becoming sick, lack of mobility, are just some of the factors which are contributing to the stress of the children. There have been reports of relatives or families trying to find homes for orphaned children and pleading for illegal adoption on internet sites, thus, raising concerns about child exploitation.
Involvement in domestic work, facing sexual abuse or exploitation, younger age, and increased intensity of employment contribute as factors for the lower mental health among child labourers, which could be attributed to the propensity for child labour to promote seclusion, low self-esteem, and the feeling of an external locus of control.
The Impact on Education of Migrant Children
One of the most noticeable early effects of the virus seems to be on childrens’ education, as 1.5 million schools were cancelled, affecting 247 million students in India. School closures also imply that migrant children are becoming increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and being forced to participate in the most heinous types of child labour.
According to a survey of the informal workplaces of the children in seven Indian cities, 80% of accompanying migrant children did not have access to education, 30% were never enrolled in schools, and 90% did not utilize the Integrated Child Development Services.
Children who have moved out of cities no longer have access to their schools and are less likely to have internet connectivity or technological equipment with which they can attend online lessons. Migrant parents may be unable to support their children's online education, which as a result would compel these children to work as labourers to support their families leading to them being denied of their constitutional right to education.
Owing to the pandemic, millions of young girls are also dropping out of secondary education, exposing them to the dangers of child marriage, pregnancy, exploitation, and assault. Due to the closure of schools, over 120 million children were also deprived of their nutritional diets through the Mid Day Meal services. The pandemic is expected to put 115 million children in danger of malnutrition. This highlights the fact that how owing to the pandemic, the migrant children are unable to avail their fundamental right to education which is a primary developmental facet for any child.
The Impact on Protection and Safety of Migrant Children
As employment and livelihoods are disrupted, the safety and protection of migrant and displaced children are at risk. During economic crises, more children become pregnant, married or end up as child labourers, and are trafficked or sexually assaulted.
Most of these children work on the streets and are more vulnerable to exploitation, verbal, physical, and sexual violence, with both male and female minors stating that adults approach them for sexual activity. Most of the migrant children (especially the girls) who serve in the informal sector, as domestic servants are often sexually abused. They are exploited and driven into prostitution due to the hunger and the stress of providing for their families, putting them in danger of pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
According to recent studies and polls, there are approximately 3 million sex workers in the country, with approximate 40% of them being children. Due to the lack of precautionary measures and aspirations of obtaining a sustainable existence, the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic would only put migrant children at a greater danger of being sexually exploited and trafficked.
The transparency and awareness related to child abuse have been hindered by social distancing and quarantine measures adopted to tackle the pandemic. Owing to lack of connection with friends and families and not being able to attend school, the early warning signs are often compromised and the child is left to suffer behind closed doors.
The COVID-19 outbreak will have far-reaching humanitarian and social consequences for migrant and displaced children in the long run. Many of these outcomes are still to be experienced. To ensure health, welfare, and protection for all, sound strategies and immediate actions are required to place migrant and affected children at the forefront of COVID-19 readiness, prevention, and response.
It is feasible to lessen the hazards that migrant and displaced children face today – and the challenges that they will face in the future – by enacting the appropriate policies now. There needs to be a large investment by the Government to make online education accessible on a systematic basis in each and every village, and there is a requirement to expand the social protection policies and programs to minimize the economic impact on these families. Stringent application of labour laws along with social workers working relentlessly to minimize child trafficking and abuse needs to be our main motive now.
Collaboration and solidarity are more important than ever to safeguard everyone's health, security, and welfare, especially those who are the most vulnerable and ignored. The best method of safeguarding the well-being of these children now is to invest in their future leading to the rekindling of hope for a better tomorrow.
(Disclaimer- The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Child Rights Centre.)