A leap of faithThe obvious dangers of migrating to countries ravaged by war have not stopped Nepali women from seeking employment in Iraq, Syria and beyond
In 2012, when Balu Maya Shrestha was offered a job in the autonomous province of Kurdistan, Iraq was undergoing one of its bloodiest phases since the withdrawal of the US military force stationed there. Balu Maya, a resident of Kathmandu, was well aware of the crisis simmering in Iraq and the potential risks of working in the war-torn country. But that did not stop her from taking the job anyway.
In January, Balu Maya returned to Nepal having had worked as a caregiver in private households in Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital. She says that she accepted the job as the salary and perks that came with it were better than other opportunities in the Gulf. She is also quick to reiterate that she received everything the local agent in Kathmandu had promised her.
“I looked after an elderly lady for four years and I earned a decent wage. I only returned home after she passed away recently,” she says. If things go as planned, Maya intends to go back to Kurdistan after a well deserved break in Kathmandu.
Like Balu Maya, tens of thousands of Nepali women go to and return from various war-torn nations every year. In Iraq, they are mainly working domestically as caregivers, cooks and housemaids; there are others who are employed in hotels, airports, banks, department stores and schools, primarily in Kurdistan and its surrounding areas. It is estimated that around 15,000 Nepali women are currently working in Iraq. Many of them, along with an alarming number of men, reached the Gulf country illegally.
Nepal restricts its citizens from working in Iraq, although the receiving government has no such restrictions. In fact, the Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE) has not issued work permits for Iraq to any Nepali citizens since the beheading of 12 Nepali workers in September 2004. The ban, however, has done very little to discourage women migrants searching for greener pastures.
In search of a better life
Countries in crisis like Iraq have been attracting a growing number of Nepali women in recent years, particularly since the implementation of the 30-year age restriction on female migrants going to the Gulf and Malaysia. In spite of the restrictions, most women cross the porous southern border before using various airports in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to embark to these destinations. Many even go through the Tribhuvan International Airport by bribing a nexus of airport staffers, immigration officials and airline staffers.
The migration process and working abroad, however, is not without risks. The risks of being duped or abandoned by agents or middlemen, particularly for those looking to travel illegally, have been well documented. There is an equally big risk of economic and physical exploitation in the host countries with little possibility of legal redress. If it is tough to enter these countries, oftentimes it is tougher to get out.
That is what happened to Renuka Chanara of Rukum, her husband, Ramesh, and her aunt, Bhumi Chanara. While Bhumi and Renuka ended up in a Syrian jail after they were caught traveling without proper paperwork, Ramesh was left stranded in Delhi after the agent abandoned him after failing to get him a visa.
Ramesh managed to bring back his wife after paying Rs 300,000 for her release. He could not do the same for his aunt. This led Bhumi’s family to lodge a police compliant against Ramesh accusing him of working with the agent. Ramesh is currently serving time at the Sundhara Jail.
In another instance, Rajesh Gurung from Lamjung died in Erbil last August. In the absence of a diplomatic mission, Nepali migrants working in Iraq raised nearly Rs 1.2 million in funds to help the bereaved family. They also took the initiative to send his body back to Nepal with the help of the Nepali embassy in Pakistan. Migrants have helped other families in the same way; when Ganga Niru Sunar of Rammechhap and Ganga Tamang of Sindhupalchowk died in Iraq in a kitchen fire earlier that year, they had banded together to ensure the bodies were returned home.
Yet, stories like these beg the question: Why are Nepali migrants willing to take enormous risks by migrating to hostile regions for employment?
“Kurdistan, for instance, is relatively better than the Gulf countries,” said Shila Thapa from Kaski, an Iraq returnee herself. Thapa, a mother of two, said that the wage and other facilities she received in Kurdistan as part of job contract were relatively better than other Gulf countries. According to migrants, though the amount varies depending on the employer’s background, domestic workers, including housemaids and caregivers, in Iraq earn somewhere between Rs 40,000 to 100,000 a month.
Balu Maya adds that the security situation and working experience in Erbil was better than other places in Iraq. “Moreover, Nepali women are getting paid well in Erbil. I personally think there is very little to complain about.”
Stakeholders believe the number of women going to places that could prove potentially dangerous is likely to increase in the future due to the growing poverty and job scarcity at home. They add that the blanket ban enforced two years ago on female migrants from working as domestic help in the Gulf may have also compelled some women to go under the radar in order to find alternatives.
A decade-long armed insurgency and another decade of protracted political transition has taken a heavy toll on the Nepal’s industries, including small and medium size industries which are a major source of employment for working women. Women, who constitute 51.5 percent of the total population, are often second choice when it comes to manual labour and even those who do find jobs struggle to earn fair wages to sustain their families. It is no secret that only a small percentage of employees, working mainly in government service or corporate offices enjoy job security and social security schemes. For the rest, finding employment overseas has become the easiest and the most profitable enterprise.
While a growing number of Nepali women are taking on industrial jobs in the Gulf and Malaysia through formal channels, those that are not qualified or interested in the industrial sector are increasingly tapping into informal, often dubious, channels in order to find employment.
Local agents, with their well-laid networks at the grassroots and strong influence in the state mechanism, remain on the rise, offering prospective migrants with a host of perks in return of lucrative commissions. In countries like Iraq, where Nepal does not have an embassy, workers themselves act agents and hire a pool of people through their contacts.
Although it is hard to ascertain the exact figure without official documentation, thousands of Nepali women are working in crisis zones with potential security threats like Syria, Libya and beyond. So far, at least two dozen families have requested help with tracing their missing relatives in Syria to the consular section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The consular section say many families have sought help for repatriation after the death of Sunita Darji of Sankhuwasabha in Janury 2012. The Nepali embassy in Egypt estimates that around 500 Nepalis are working in Syria as housemaids, while some unofficial estimates suggest the actual number could be three times higher.
Similarly, thousands of Nepali women are going as far as Nigeria, Sudan and Uganda—African countries mired in sectarian conflicts. Most of the women are believed to have migrated willingly, taking up lucrative job offers as bar dancers and waitresses.
“It is hard to ascertain the reality as the women are not interested in meeting or talking to Nepalis because they fear the gossip, or worse, losing their jobs,” said Hikmat Thapa, General Secretary of Non Resident Nepali Association, who is based in Nigeria.
The Nepali government, which has been struggling to create jobs at home, seems to be neither in a position to stop women from migrating to high risk zones, nor able to ensure their safety. Its shortsighted plans and policies are, if anything, pushing these women to further vulnerabilities, making the enormous risks the migrants are taking even more precarious. The existing ban on migrating as domestic help in Gulf countries—enforced to prevent abuse and exploitation—has scarcely helped, particularly in the absence of viable alternatives for prospective workers who are not qualified or interested in migrating as industrial workers.
As a result, aspiring women migrants, befuddled by layers of bureaucratic hassle and restrictions, find themselves increasingly dependent on unauthorised agents, or worse, traffickers.
Authorities in Nepal say some women may have been trafficked but are quick to point out that most have migrated willingly. This assertion is further validated by the fact that Nepalis working in war-torn zones have refused to return home on several occasions despite offers from government authorities to repatriate them.
For example, the government sent a team of high-level diplomatic officials to rescue and repatriate Nepalis caught in a war between Iraqi forces and Jihadist militia in 2014. But only a few workers, most of whom had completed their job tenure as per contract, have agreed to return. “Those whose work contracts had expired agreed to return. But many refused to return although they were stuck in the war-ravaged areas,” Arjun Kant Mainali, a senior former diplomat who led the rescue mission, told the Post.
Migrants like Balu Maya assert that the government should either provide jobs at home or facilitate the migration process. They believe the government should first open an embassy in Iraq and formally allow aspirant workers to work there after cross-checking the security situation.
“Growing numbers of women are going to Kurdistan today as the earning is really good. I don’t think any restriction will stop women them unless they get similar opportunities at home,” said Balu Maya.
Even after a blanket ban on migrating as domestic help was enforced, the initiative has done little to dissuade those already determined to leave one way or another. If anything, by pushing these migrants further into the margins, the government is unwittingly shepherding them into the open arms of trafficking syndicates. In the absence of official channels that can ensure safety and redress during crises, the search for greener pastures is quickly becoming a giant leap of faith. And once the workers are forced under the radar, there is no telling where or when they will resurface again. If at all.