Scores of Nepali migrant workers go missing every year in foreign landsMost missing persons are either in jail and cannot contact their families or have chosen to voluntarily break contact after starting new families.
Up until last year, things were going well for S Rai. Her husband, who had been working in Malaysia for the past 10 years, was regularly sending home money and would call her and their children often to keep up with things. But last year, he suddenly disappeared.
“The last time we talked, I remember him crying,” Rai recalled at a Monday programme in Kathmandu organised by the Red Cross and the Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee, an organisation that works for migrant rights. “He said he wanted to come back home. After that, I never heard from him.”
Since her husband cut off contact, Rai has received no money from Malaysia, leading her to struggle to pay rent and her children’s school fees. She suspects that he is living with another woman in Malaysia, but has no evidence.
In an industry already plagued by deaths and exploitation, hundreds of Nepali migrant workers like Rai’s husband go missing. The Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee alone has received 388 Nepali missing persons complaints between 2013 and 2019. From them, about 200 of them have been located.
While some choose to voluntarily cut off contact with their families back home, others disappear under more mysterious circumstances, leading to speculation among family back home regarding whether they are alive or dead. Whatever the reason, the sudden disappearance of a loved one can enact a psychological and emotional toll upon families back home, who not only struggle to cope with the loss but also to meet basic needs in the absence of their primary provider.
“People going missing is akin to death for families waiting for their arrival,” said Kul Prasad Karki, chairperson of the committee. “While they go through emotional pain, they also struggle to make ends meet.”
P. Gurung’s husband, who went to work in Saudi Arabia, has been out of contact for over five years now. According to Gurung, some of her husband’s friends had told her that he had had a road accident, but they never told her which hospital he went to for treatment and what his condition was.
According to Shanti Kumari Singh, a programme officer with the committee, when migrants go missing, they are most often in jail for having broken local laws. But in other cases, they could also be having affairs with locals, have family disputes back home, been involved in accidents, been exploited by their employers, or have died.
“There are various reasons for their disappearance, but in some cases, they do it intentionally as well,” said Singh. “Most of the time, migrant workers go missing after they end up in jail and detention centres and are unable to contact their families.”
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, access to detainees depends on the local government. For instance, in Malaysia, where a significant number of Nepalis are in immigration detention, it’s difficult to access them, said Sandesh Shrestha, head of the protection section with Red Cross Nepal, which also receives nearly 40-50 cases of missing Nepali migrant workers in different labour destinations every year.
“However, the new Malaysian government appears supportive in this regard,” said Shrestha. “We are also trying to approach the Gulf countries to increase our access to detention centres and prisons.”
Records at Pravasi (from 2013-19) show that the highest number of migrants going missing have been reported in Malaysia, where 200 Nepali workers were reported missing, followed by 67 in Saudi Arabia, 46 in Kuwait, 23 in the United Arab Emirates, 22 in Qatar, and 30 in other countries.
Every year, tens of thousands of Nepali workers migrate for work in various countries, mainly in the Arab Gulf and Malaysia. Hundreds of them die due to unsafe working conditions, harsh temperatures and disease.
“The disappearance of even one Nepali citizen is tragic,” said Giri Prasad Acharya, an undersecretary with the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security. “In a majority of cases, they are either not willing to come back or are forced to stay. We have tried to address these issues in the new Bilateral Labour Agreements and memorandums that we are signing with labour countries to make the host government more responsible.”
Migrant rights activists say inadequate information from family members about missing persons, lack of coordination among government agencies, non-cooperative employers, and migrants’ own reluctance to return home remain significant challenges to locating missing migrants.
For families back home, like Rai’s and Gurung’s, there is little they can do except await any news from their husbands.
“I have no idea about his whereabouts,” said Rai, although she believes that he has another family in Malaysia. “I don’t know for certain whether he is alive.”