United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Thursday expressed concern over the mass exodus of migrant workers in India after the 21-day countrywide lockdown began to contain the coronavirus. She said she was distressed to see the plight of workers.

“The lockdown in India represents a massive logistical and implementation challenge given the population size and its density and we all hope the spread of the virus can be checked,” she said in a statement. However, it imperative for the government to ensure the measures taken in response to Covid-19 are neither applied in a discriminatory manner nor exacerbate existing inequalities and vulnerabilities, she added.

Thousands of migrant workers have been trying to get home, with many of them attempting to walk the whole way amid lockdown. While the deaths of at least 22 such migrants in transit are documented, the actual number might be much more. Many were beaten, lathi-charged and sent back from the borders by the police for breaking rules of social distancing amid the lockdown. A group of migrants were also sprayed with disinfectants in Uttar Pradesh.

On March 29, the home ministry asked all states and the Union Territories to intercept migrants on their way home and put them in quarantine for 14 days to stop the spread of the infection.

Bachelet said the Supreme Court ruling on the migrants’ exodus, directing the government to provide all workers with food, water and shelter, will go a “long way in ensuring the safety and rights of these vulnerable migrants”. “Many of these people’s lives have been suddenly uprooted by the lockdown, placing them in very precarious situations,” she added.

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The United Nations human rights body also took note of the other steps taken by the Indian government to facilitate people during the lockdown such as distribution of food services on a massive scale, calling on all employers to pay salaries, and instructing landlords to waive rents. However, Bachelet said that in spite of all these significant efforts, more needs to be done “as the human tragedy continues to unfold before our eyes”.

The human rights chief urged India to introduce special measures that focus on migrant women, who, she said, are economically most vulnerable and impacted by the pandemic. She said the government should work “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the civil society, including several non-profit organisations that are working on ground to provide relief to people. “This is a time for domestic solidarity and unity,” she said.

Bachelet said that while the agency understands the strain on the police services of India at this time, officers must should restraint and abide by international standards on the use of force and humane treatment in accordance with the Supreme Court’s order.

She said measures such as stamping hands of those who are quarantined at home, and sticking notices outside their houses, should be weighed against a citizen’s right to privacy. “Avoid measures that would unduly stigmatise people within the community, who may already be vulnerable due to their social status or other factors,” Bachelet added.

India has reported 2,301 Covid-19 cases so far, and 56 of these people have died, the Union health ministry said.