Trapped at the borderThe Nepalis being barred from entering the country from the Nepal-India border are already in dire circumstances—they must be allowed to return home.
It is illegal, not to mention downright wrong, for citizens to be locked out of their own country. In fact, in Nepal, Article 45 of the Constitution ‘guarantees that citizens will not be exiled’. Yet, despite advocates arguing that the Nepalis currently suffering across the border are being kept out illegally, the state apparatus concerned has continued to keep the border closed. This has caused Nepali citizens to suffer, without protection, in a country where the majority of society has openly become xenophobic as it faces its own lenghty batte with the Covid-19 crisis.
Even as the government has promised to allow Nepalis trapped at the border with India into the country, in places like Darchula, this promise remains unfulfilled. But these Nepalis deserve better. Their lives are already filled with hardship—having to leave their own country to eke out a livelihood for themselves and their family in a foreign land. The government must allow all Nepalis trapped abroad to return to the safety of their own homes.
On March 24, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown in India, to fight the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2, many hundreds and thousands of Nepalis working in the southern country were already drawing up plans to return home. By that time, the Nepal government had already sealed the border and enforced its own lockdown. The Nepalis were not alone in planning a return. Spooked by the Covid-19 disease and its reporting in the massive cities they worked in, millions of migrants workers—both from rural India and adjacent countries like Nepal—attempted to flee. Another fear that they had was the ‘anti-“outsider”’ culture that permeates through India in times of crises.
But with India closing all intra-state and international borders (many Indian migrant workers are trapped in Nepal, too) the Nepalis, some being thousands of kilometres away from the border, began to make a literal trek across the South Asian giant to return home. While many may not have been expecting a trouble-free response from Nepali society, what with migrants being openly accused of bringing SARS-CoV-2 into the country, to face a closed border seems to have broken many.
On March 30, complaining of a lack of food and deteriorating conditions, three persons representing the 500 stuck in the Indian city of Dharchula swan across the Mahakali river, in an attempt to talk to the CDO of Darchula (the Nepali side) to open up the border crossing again. Instead of heeding this legitimate request, the three were detained by border security personnel. Another 400 Nepalis in the Sunauli area too have started a sit-in protest on the no-man’s-land between India and Nepal from March 20. The situation of these Nepalis, resorting to protests and risking their lives to physically cross a river, should show the dire circumstances they now face. The government must implement its recent decision to let all Nepalis stranded at the border into the country.
Countries across the world are rescuing their citizens, with France, Germany and the United States chartering flights to take their citizens back from Nepal. It is true that Nepal lacks the wherewithal to do exactly what the developed countries are doing. But that said, the state cannot shirk from its duty towards its citizens. As the virus invaded the world, the government here largely was in a slumber; ministers were found to be making irresponsible remarks like Nepal is ‘a coronavirus-free country’. When it finally woke up, it was already too late.
A lot of the confusion and the lack of implementation currently seems to stem from the provisions in the national government’s order, and the orders of the provincial governments that mirror the federal decision. The provision is that these Nepalis, upon entering Nepal, must be kept in quarantine for two weeks. However, most of the provinces, and the districts within them, straddling the border do not have adequate quarantine facilities.
If this is indeed the problem, the Oli government must act to set up such facilities in haste. The Oli administration should have anticipated this mass influx given the adoption of lockdowns all over the world. The concerned cannot simply feign ignorance and allow the Nepalis to suffer. They must immediately be allowed to return home.
But today, instead of doing right by the trapped Nepalis, reports suggest that the government has decided to keep the borders closed. It has instead employed diplomatic channels to ensure that Nepalis on the other side of the border are taken care of by the Indian government. Indians on this side of the border, consequently, will be taken care of by Nepal. While this solves the problem in the interim, it is too little and too late.
Nepal has already set precedence by rescuing 175 Nepalis from Hubei province in China, then the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak, in late February. It must now do everything in its power to allow the Nepalis to return home from India.