Government considers bringing back Nepali migrant workers from Covid-19-affected countriesForeign Minister Gyawali says everyone will not be brought home at once, those in urgent need to return home will be prioritised in the first phase.
Chandan Kumar Mandal
The government has said it is considering repatriating workers stranded in Covid-19 affected countries, weeks after tens of thousands of Nepalis abroad urged authorities to allow them to return home.
Who gets to return home in the first phase, however, will be decided by a host of factors such as an individual’s living condition, job and visa status, the situation of their family back home, and how the outbreak pans out in Nepal in the days to come, said Minister for Foreign Affairs Pradeep Kumar Gyawali.
“The Covid-19 pandemic, which initially began in countries such as Malaysia and South Korea—destination countries for Nepali migrants, and gradually reached other countries,” said Gyawali speaking at an interaction with the Labour Employment Journalists Group on Monday.
“The government is working on a series of measures that involve safe repatriation of workers, their quarantine and employment in the labour market,” said Gyawali without mentioning when the government plans to start the repatriation.
When the repatriation begins, pregnant women, people who have lost their jobs, those with health issues, those that have lost a family member back home, and those that have overstayed their visas will be given priority, said the minister.
As per initial government estimates, more than 35,000 based in countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia are in need of repatriation as they have started sending back undocumented workers and those that have overstayed their visas.
In Kuwait alone, 3,500 Nepali workers have registered to return home after the government there announced an amnesty for undocumented migrants. “Countries like Kuwait have requested Nepali officials to help them register an estimated 7,000 Nepali undocumented workers, who are to be kept in camps. The Kuwaiti government will then provide free flights for their repatriation,” said Gyawali. “We have to respond and receive our workers in such a circumstance.”
But he said before bringing back thousands of Nepali workers from various countries, the government has to look at how the pandemic pans out in the next few weeks and complete arrangements for their safe and well-managed repatriation.
The country has been under a lockdown since March 24, and international flights remain suspended at least until May 15.
“For instance, if 30,000 return, then we have to make sure we have enough space to quarantine them and deploy professionals to cater to them. They also need to go through rapid diagnostic tests,” said Gyawali.
“They need to be brought home safely and their families should also be protected from the infection.” That is why the workers will be brought home gradually, everyone will not come all at once after international flights resume, said the foreign minister.
The senior minister’s comments come as the government’s handling of issues faced by tens of thousands of Nepalis in Covid-19 affected countries, has been criticised as being “sluggish” and “unsympathetic”.
Since the coronavirus outbreak began, migrant workers have been languishing under poor conditions, struggling for food and proper accommodation, and living in fear of getting infection. But the government hasn’t done anything to substantial to address their problems, said Rameshwar Nepal, a labour migration researcher and South Asia Director of Equidem Research, a UK-based human rights research organization
He said the government must act now as it has already been months since migrant workers started sharing their plight through various media.
“While the Nepal government might have done a few things for migrant workers, they need to do a lot more now,” said the researcher. “The government can’t only talk in terms of sentiments, it needs to swing into action the way other countries have done.”
He said that for starters, the government should commission a study on Nepali workers affected by the epidemic. Embassies collecting data using Google Forms is praiseworthy, but that’s not sufficient, he said.
A large number of Nepali workers have either lost their jobs or are forced to stay on unpaid leave or accept pay cuts. Prolonged lockdowns and travel restrictions have translated into loss of jobs for several thousand workers.
“We have so far talked to 302 workers who have been living under the fear of the disease and lost their jobs as their employers want them to leave,” he said. “Many workers had bought flight tickets, but could not get refunds after flights were cancelled.”
Countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are warning countries to repatriate their nationals or face consequences.
But Gyawali said such warnings were not aimed at Nepali workers.
“During our conversations, host countries have assured that Nepali workers will not be put in difficult conditions, nor will they face any kind of discrimination, even if they are hospitalised,” said Gyawali.
“Nepal’s government has also requested those countries not to take any actions against workers whose visa and work contract have expired. Our focus has been towards making labour destination countries more accountable towards Nepali workers’ safety.”
According to researcher Nepal, the government needs to set up a high-level committee, to help Nepali workers in need in consultation and coordination with host countries.
“Nepal embassies, which are already under-resourced could not do much even before Covid-19 pandemic. They can’t deal with an unprecedented situation like this,” he said.
“Qatar heavy-handedly deported Nepali workers, but the embassy could not respond strongly,” he said. “If the Nepal government can bring back students from Wuhan, then it should also bring home low-waged and voiceless migrant workers. It can start with at least a few hundred, but the government can’t go on giving excuses for not doing so for a long time.”