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Inclusion Of Refugees And Asylum Seekers In The Vaccine Policy

Kalyani Pandey & Tejaswini Prasad
17 July 2021 11:16 AM GMT
Inclusion Of Refugees And Asylum Seekers In The Vaccine Policy
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India has a far-reaching experience of national immunization. In the past, vaccination drives have been conducted for a prolonged period to eliminate polio across the nation. In the same way, there is a reason to believe that the vaccination drive against the COVID-19 pandemic will also go with ease but somewhere it is faltering. The Vaccine Policy (Policy) now is limited to the...

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India has a far-reaching experience of national immunization. In the past, vaccination drives have been conducted for a prolonged period to eliminate polio across the nation. In the same way, there is a reason to believe that the vaccination drive against the COVID-19 pandemic will also go with ease but somewhere it is faltering. The Vaccine Policy (Policy) now is limited to the citizens, but needs to consider the inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers in the Policy.

India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention but it still has an erga omnes obligation to protect people and follow the basic humanitarian rules to end the transmission of virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) adopted the principle of "leaving no one behind" and "equitable access to vaccines" for COVID–19 vaccine around the world. Moreover, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has on a universal basis called for the inclusion of refugees in the national vaccination policies.[1] With this call of UNHCR, more than fifty countries such as Jordan, Greece, Colombia, etc. have included refugees in their vaccination strategies.[2] India is providing support and protection to 203,235 refugees from Sri Lanka and Tibet, and 40,859 refugees and asylum seekers as of January 2020.[3] This big number indicates the need for their inclusion to end the transmission.

The Need For Inclusion

India is a party to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and also to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The idea behind uplifting humanitarian laws is to protect people from every issue affecting their right to live with dignity. That, no one should be discriminated at any time on the basis of caste, place of birth, race, religion, sex. The very same ideology has been reflected under Article 15 and Article 16 of the Indian Constitution as well as Article 7 of UDHR.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General has stated "The pandemic is not over, and it will not be over until and unless the transmission is controlled in every last country". Therefore, the Policy must be based on an unbiased nature i.e. irrespective of who a person is, what all documents they have or not, they deserve to be vaccinated. The Policy limited to the citizens makes it difficult to control the transmission effectively.

Many Rohingya refugees were excluded from getting vaccinated as they lack identification documents. Ravi Nair, the Executive Director of South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, told that if specific documentation will be needed then large number of people will fall out of the vaccination process and will face death. This statement by Ravi Nair and UNHCR's call for the inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers is highlighting the need for inclusion to break the transmission chain. Being worst hit due to pandemic, still after several changes introduced in the Policy, these people are not included in the list.

Role Of Article 21 In Inclusion

Part III of the Indian Constitution ensures some rights to citizens and some rights to all persons and one such right is the "Right to Life" under Article 21.

The Supreme Court of India observed in the case of The Chairman, Railway Board v. Chandrima Das[4] that Article 21 applies to foreigners also i.e. this right is available to both citizens and non-citizens. Therefore, not providing vaccines to refugees and asylum seekers who are living here for the past several years would lead to the violation of their Right to Life. Due to this, they will be pushed towards the exposure of virus in such an unprecedented time. The Right to Life also includes the Right to Health, under which states have an obligation to maintain the health of the people and to provide health services.[5] The Supreme Court also emphasized the application of Article 21 on every human being including refugees which grants the rights to refugees to get vaccinated after the extension of Article 21.[6]

As India is a signatory to UDHR and ICCPR, it enshrines the Right to Health on all people, including refugees and undocumented migrants. These agreements further put an obligation on the Indian government to make Policy inclusive of refugees and asylum seekers. Currently, the government has followed Vaccine Diplomacy Policy that pushes to donate AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to different countries indirectly respecting agreements or mandates under Article 51(c) of the Constitution. This inclusion will help in widening its scope of goodwill and gesture in terms of humanity towards refugees and asylum seekers. Adopting this measure would help the nation in eliminating the virus in every possible way as soon as possible.

During such an unprecedented time, it becomes really important that humanity should prevail in protecting people from the virus. The act of inclusion will not only save others from the virus but will also set an example for other countries. It will also help in uplifting the interpretation of humanitarian laws as these are in alignment with the SDGs too. Therefore, following the mandate of Article 21 refugees and asylum seekers should be included in the Policy.

The government should look forward to provide them a temporary document in collaboration with UNHCR and help them get vaccinated. The "Near-to-Door" vaccination method can be preferred for them. In this manner, the virus can be eliminated from the nation in the best possible way leading to the safety of people as well.

[1]Nannie Sköld, UNHCR calls for inclusion of refugees in vaccination plans, The UN Refugee Agency, (Feb 17, 2021), https://www.unhcr.org/neu/51787-unhcr-calls-for-inclusion-of-refugees-in-vaccination-plans.html.

[2]Id.

[3]UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, Fact Sheet, India (January 31, 2020), https://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/UNHCR India factsheet - January 2020.pdf.

[4]The Chairman, Railway Board & Ors. v. Chandrima Das & Ors., AIR 1982 SC 1473 (India).

[5]State of Punjab & Ors. v. Ram Lubhaya Bagga, 1999 (1) SCC 297 (India).

[6]National Human Rights Commission v. State of Arunachal Pradesh, 1996 SCC (1) 742 (India).

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