Avoid rough landingThe last thing the country needs at this moment is a repatriation disaster.
The government’s repatriation of 175 Nepalis from China's Wuhan, in mid-February this year, had surprised many as its arrangements had exceeded their expectations. It had provided the evacuees with free air tickets and decent quarantine facilities, prompting them to say that they had finally felt ‘at home’ after months of distress.
What was essentially a Wuhan-centred viral infection until February has evolved into a pandemic, leaving millions of Nepalis stranded abroad and craving to return home. Migrant workers living in the Gulf, Malaysia and South Korea are the hardest hit, having lost their jobs and left with no option but to return home. The government’s decision to repatriate them, albeit late, has come as a huge relief. Only this time it is in no position to replicate the efficiency of the Wuhan repatriation. The number of Nepalis who have reportedly requested to be repatriated number around 10,000 in Saudi Arabia; 7,000 in Qatar; and 7,000 in Malaysia. The number is expected to grow once the repatriation process begins.
Ideally, the government should repatriate all its citizens who want to return home during such a crisis. It should also fund the repatriation, especially in the case of the helpless migrants who have contributed, in advance, to the migrant workers’ welfare fund that stands at around Rs7 billion at the moment. The utility of the fund, as per the Foreign Employment Act, 2007, is exactly for the ‘return and repatriation of Nepali migrant workers’. Since the entire fund can’t be expended on an elephantine repatriation plan, the government must adopt a needs-based approach, evacuating only those in an emergency due to loss of jobs or medical conditions among others. Such repatriation should be entirely free of cost.
Expecting the government to repatriate all workers—even those who are just homesick and thus want to return—would be asking a bit too much especially when it has failed to expand the ambit of PCR testing within the country. Rather, it should conduct high-level talks with the labour-destination countries to ensure that the distressed Nepali migrant workers are provided with minimum support for survival until the labour market returns to normal. Countries across the world are expected to begin easing lockdowns sooner than later to get their markets running even as they continue to fight the pandemic. Rather than bringing home a large number of migrants, greater effort should, therefore, be made on holding them where they are while ensuring their living conditions do not deteriorate.
When India began repatriating its migrant workers at the beginning of May, it had clarified, at the beginning itself, that the evacuees would have to bear all their expenses. Though not ideal, it was clear enough a statement on the modus operandi of repatriation. As of now, the Nepali government has failed to clarify who exactly is going to fund tickets, medical examinations and quarantine facilities of the repatriated. It is neither necessary nor feasible to repatriate all the migrant workers stranded abroad. But the government must come clean on who all it wants to repatriate and who bears the huge costs involved. The last thing the country needs now is a repatriation disaster.
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