Even as tensions flare in Iraq, Nepali workers say they feel relatively safeNepalis haven’t stopped going to Iraq—one of the countries Nepal has barred for foreign employment.
Kunchang Ghale had no immediate plans of returning to Nepal. After working in Iraq for nearly six years, Ghale only planned to return home during Dashain to celebrate the festival with his family in Gorkha.
But the sudden and dramatic escalation of tensions in the Middle East has turned Iraq into a battlefield between the United States and Iran. In retaliation for killing Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, in an airstrike in Baghdad last week, Iran had fired more than a dozen missiles at two US airbases. The Ayn al Asad, one of the two airbases attacked by Iran, housed nine Nepali workers, all of whom are safe.
While there are rising fears over whether the conflict will escalate, most Nepalis in Iraq do not seem too worried. Ghale, in any case, has booked his ticket home. He will be back in Nepal on Sunday.
“There is nothing much to worry about as the situation is not as bad as it seems,” Ghale told the Post from Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, over the phone. “But our employer wanted to ensure our safety and told us that they could send us home anytime we wanted.”
Although the hotel Ghale works for is in the ‘Red Zone’, which is considered unsafe, vehicular movement and everything is normal in the area, he said. According to Ghale, his workplace is at least 10km away from the Green Zone—the highly fortified area which houses diplomatic missions, including US Embassy and Iraqi government ministries.
However, not all is well. Occupancy at the Babylon Rotana Hotel, a five-star hotel in Baghdad where Ghale and nearly 80 other Nepalis work, has decreased significantly, which ultimately led Ghale to decide to return home with a couple of Nepali friends.
“Guest arrivals have decreased after the recent incident so there is not much work,” said Ghale. “I will come back after the situation normalises.”
Although Nepali workers are banned from working in Iraq, thousands of Nepalis have made their way to various Iraqi cities. The latest escalation in the region, following attacks on air bases that house Nepali workers, has raised concerns over the safety of Nepalis in the war-torn country.
According to Lalkaji Gurung, who has been working in Iraq since 2009, Nepalis have been working there in sizeable numbers for over a decade now. Iraq, in addition to Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, is among four conflict-ravaged countries that are forbidden for Nepali citizens to migrate to work. Despite the 2016 killing of 12 Nepali workers in Afghanistan, Nepali workers continue to travel to Iraq using illegal and unsafe routes.
In the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq alone, there are nearly 12,000 to 15,000 Nepalis, as per Gurung’s estimate. Most work in hotels, restaurants and the six casinos in Sulaymaniyah, a city in the region.
“Nepalis have been working here for a long time. Whether it’s inside the army bases or outside such camps,” said Gurung, who works as a service department chief at a local mall in Sulaymaniyah.
According to Gurung, all the residents of army bases at risk have moved to safer spaces.
“At least 20 Nepalis who are employed at Balad Air Base have been relocated,” said Gurung. “Nepali workers from those camps have not returned home yet, but they have been asked to stay prepared.”
Nepali citizens are also working in Erbil, the capital city of Kurdistan, where an airbase was attacked by Iran. The Erbil base has a total of 35 Nepalis, who work as cleaners or IT engineers, said Gurung. The Erbil International Airport also has Nepalis working as trolley boys and cleaners.
“There is nothing to panic about just yet, and we should not see the entire Iraq as coming under attack,” said Gurung. “The attacks will likely be at US bases that are located far away from residential areas.”
All the Nepalis that the Post spoke to in Iraq said that it is really the green zone where things are unsafe. As fortified as it might be, the green zone has always been under threat because of the presence of major diplomatic offices, including the US embassy, said Gurung, who estimates that there are around 200 Nepalis working inside the green zone.
The Nepal government has said that its concerns were drawn to recent developments in the west Asian region where a large number of Nepali migrants are working and that the security and safety of Nepali citizens remains a matter of utmost priority. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also formed a nine-member inter-ministerial coordination committee to assess the ongoing condition and advise the government if it worsens.
But for Nepalis in Iraq, there is no immediate danger. The only fear they seem to have is the possibility of Nepali women working as housemaids in Iraqi cities getting stranded if the situation worsens any further. All they want is the Nepal Embassy in Kuwait, which also oversees Iraq, to respond immediately in case the ongoing conflict flares up.
“Most of us are safe right now but my family is asking me to return before I am trapped here,” said Zenisha Tamang, who worked as a housemaid in Baghdad before switching to a company job. “As my employer is friendly, I can return anytime. But many people are counting on the embassy in Kuwait. Let’s hope embassy officials pick up our calls if and when we reach out to them.”