Thousands of Nepali workers affected as Qatar imposes temporary entry ban amidst Covid-19 outbreakNearly 40,000 workers with valid work permits are now unable to fly to Qatar, placing them at risk of being blacklisted.
Chandan Kumar Mandal
Nepal’s labour migration is set for a jolt, as Qatar on Sunday decided to place a temporary ban on arrivals from 14 countries, including Nepal, in the wake of the global coronavirus outbreak.
The temporary suspension of arrivals announced by the Government Communications Office applies to anyone arriving from Nepal, Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Syria and Thailand, starting Monday.
“The decision affects all individuals intending to enter from these countries, including visas upon arrival, those with a residence or work permit, and temporary visitors,” said the statement announcing the ban.
With one of the top labour destinations for Nepali migrant workers announcing a temporary ban, the fate of thousands of Nepali workers planning to migrate to the Gulf nation now hangs in the balance.
The Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies, the umbrella orgnisation of 760 recruiting agencies in the country, estimates that nearly 35,000-40,000 Nepalis hold visas to live and work in Qatar, but haven’t left yet.
“Nearly 40,000 Nepali migrant workers have obtained visas and they are ready to leave for Qatar,” said Sujit Shrestha, general secretary of the association. “Their visa status is at risk if the current uncertainty persists.”
According to Shrestha, after obtaining a work permit, migrant workers need to leave within three months or they risk being blacklisted from entering Qatar for the next two years.
The coronavirus was first identified in December in China’s Wuhan, but it has now spread across the world, including numerous countries in the Middle East, including Qatar where a total 13 cases have been reported so far. The temporary entry ban follows the identification of three Covid-19 cases in foreign nationals.
Panic in the Gulf region has already started to have consequences as 120 Nepali workers en route to Saudi Arabia on FlyDubai were unable to depart as the country has suspended all flights coming in from the UAE, according to Shrestha.
In recent years, Qatar has become the most preferred labour destination for Nepali migrant workers, overtaking Malaysia. Any upheaval in the gas-rich nation will have serious ramifications for Nepal, which is the second largest source of labour for Qatar. Last fiscal year, a total of 161,215 Nepali workers left for Qatar. There are an estimated over 400,000 Nepalis in Qatar.
“Qatar’s decision to bar the entry of foreign nationals from high risk countries is not a surprise. Such a decision would have been taken by any country as a precaution against the spread of the disease,” said Yubaraj Nepal, director of the Centre for Migration and International Relations, an organisation that works for the welfare of migrant workers. “But the impact of the move will be certainly felt in Nepal, as Qatar continues to be our major labour market.”
Qatar’s decision doesn’t just affect Nepali workers set to leave for Qatar but also those who are currently in Nepal on break, as they are ineligible to return.
“Those who are currently in Nepal on vacation have a set date of their return. If they fail to report to their employers on time, their visas might expire,” said Nepal. “Some workers even come with their return ticket, which they will now lose. On the other hand, first-time migrant workers who’ve already invested for their foreign employment could lose their investments as it’s not certain when the ban will be lifted.”
According to Nepal, the longer the ban continues, the bigger the impact will be on the country's economy in the form of remittance and the consumption habits of migrant workers and their families back home.
In the first four months of the ongoing fiscal year, Nepali workers from Qatar sent home Rs53.93billion as remittance, which constituted 17.7 percent of the total remittance received by the country in that period.
“This ban is temporary, but it will have an adverse impact on Nepal’s labour migration,” said Swarna Kumar Jha, a coordinator of the National Network for Safe Migration, an umbrella network of various organisations working for promoting safe migration. “The number of foreign jobs and the remittance amount will both dwindle.”
Labour migrants are already dwindling, with limited job opportunities, political turmoil and economic conflict in the Gulf countries and in Malaysia. These labour destinations are steeped in political and economic conflicts of their own and are attempting to make changes to their policies regarding the hiring of foreign workers, along with attempting to diversify the pool of countries they hire workers from.
Qatar is still dealing with the economic blockade and diplomatic isolation instituted by a group of Middle Eastern countries led by Saudi Arabia since June 2017. Work in Qatar, the 2022 FIFA World Cup host nation, has already started to dry up.
“It was evident that the demand for workers from Qatar would see a drop after infrastructure for the upcoming football world cup was completed,” said Nepal. “There has been discussion about diversifying labour destination countries, but nothing much has happened.”
However, migration experts say that the current concern should be on the safety of Nepali workers in these countries. Although the Nepal government has currently placed a halt to departures to South Korea, there is uncertainty regarding what will happen to workers leaving for other countries.
“We all know about the poor living conditions of Nepali workers in those countries. They live in cramped rooms, only placing them at greater risk of infection,” said Nepal.
The recruiting agencies’ association has said that they have requested the Qatari Embassy in Kathmandu to consider the visa status duration for Nepali workers if the current ban stands for a long time.“Nepal is not among countries that are highly infected, as there has only been one case reported so far,” said Shrestha. “We have been requesting the embassy not to blacklist workers who are waiting for their flights.”
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of September 22, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 has spread to 213 countries and territories around the world and infected more than 31,405,983 people with 967,505 deaths and 22,990,260 recoveries. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 5,557,573 with 88,943 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 306,304 confirmed cases with 6,420 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 65,276 cases with 427 deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.