Nepali students in Thailand, like Nepalis stuck elsewhere, just want to come homeTwenty-five Nepalis doing an internship in Phuket are fast running out of money and want to come home, but they aren’t hopeful of any help from the government.
Every day, Rita Dong Tamang would wake up early, finish her morning chores and then go to work at the Grand Southsea Khaolak Beach Resort where she was doing her internship. For five months, this was her daily routine on the island of Phuket in Thailand.
But everything changed in mid-March, when her workplace decided to close down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Things only got worse from then on, as the Thai government instituted a nationwide lockdown on March 26 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, depriving many more Nepalis of jobs. Twenty-four other Nepali students in Phuket, all students at the Kathmandu Academy of Tourism and Hospitality, now had nowhere to work and limited supplies of food to survive on.
“All we want is to return home,” Tamang told the Post over the phone. “With the resort shutting down due to Covid-19, we have no choice but to come home. How long can we live on aid from other people?”
According to Tamang, the resort where she was interning decided to close its operation on March 17, a month before she was due to finish her six-month internship as part of her curriculum at the Kathmandu Academy of Tourism and Hospitality. Tamang and a few of her friends had decided right then to return to Nepal.
“We booked a flight to return to Nepal on March 20, but that flight was cancelled,” she said. “We then booked another on March 22, but that too was cancelled because the Nepal government banned all international flights.”
Nepal banned all incoming international flights on March 20, four days before the country went into complete lockdown.
Since March 20, Tamang and her friends have been living in a rented apartment in Bangkok, where they came to board their flight to Nepal. With money running out, the students then wrote a letter to Ganesh Dhakal, the Nepali Ambassador to Thailand, asking for help in taking them home. But the embassy told them that nothing could be done without the intervention of the Nepali government, said Tamang.
“They told us that their hands were tied and they could do nothing except pass on our application to Kathmandu,” she said.
According to Pranish Tamrakar, another student from the same college, if it wasn’t for the local Non-Resident Nepali chapter, they might have been homeless and starving.
“NRN Thailand provided us with food and arranged a place for us to live. If not for them, we would be facing more problems,” he said.
Tamrakar doesn’t believe that the applications that the embassy asked them to write were forwarded to the Nepal government and says that the embassy told them that they have to look after themselves as the embassy could not provide them with relief unless the Nepal government ordered it to.
“We have lost all hope that the embassy will help, which is why we are now asking the media for help,” he said. “How can we keep asking our parents to send us money when they themselves are stuck at home?”
Ambassador Dhakal, however, told the Post that he had sent the students’ request to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Kathmandu.
“I have been regularly telling Nepali officials about their [the students’] situation,” said Dhakal. “These 25 students aren't the only ones facing this problem. We’ve got around 300 requests from Nepalis who want to fly back to Nepal.”
The plight of these Nepali students is not unique. Ever since the Nepal government decided to close its borders to all entrants, even its own citizens, tens of thousands of Nepalis have been stuck in foreign lands, unable to come back home. Many Nepalis, especially migrant labourers, have lost jobs and are subsisting on relief materials provided by governments and charities. Nepalis in many Middle Eastern countries, South Korea, Turkey and India have been pleading with their government to be brought back home.
After facing criticism from human rights organisations and even ruling party politicians themselves, the Nepal government is now considering repatriating Nepali migrants who are in dire condition in foreign lands. No decision, however, has been taken so far.
Meanwhile, thousands of Nepali workers in India who’re stuck at the border have been sneaking into the country, posing risks for the spread of Covid-19 in the country. Some have even taken to swimming across the Mahakali river in the Far West to get into Nepal.
According to Bhabindra Basnet, vice-president of NRN Thailand, they are working with the embassy to help Nepalis who are stuck in Thailand due to the lockdown. Exact data is not available but the NRN Thailand estimates that there are between 300 and 500 Nepalis currently in Thailand.
“We have been coordinating with the embassy and providing relief materials for people, mostly around Phuket and Bangkok,” said Basnet. “We found out about these students after they asked us for help. We’ve been providing them with food and other essential items so that they don’t starve.”
The major problem, however, remains money. Students generally don’t have large sums in savings and without cash, they could be forced to vacate their rented apartments. The Nepal Rastra Bank, on April 1, issued a directive allowing parents to send a one-time transfer of $500 to their children who’re studying abroad. But if the lockdown is extended, this one-time lump sum might not last long.
“There are a lot of Nepalis who want to go back to Nepal. If a plane comes to Bangkok to take Nepalis home, I have no doubt that it will be full,” said Basnet. “But the government of Nepal has told all Nepalis to remain where they are, so I think a rescue is out of the question until they change their minds.”
For now, all of the students are hoping things will get better and they are able to fly back to Kathmandu and reconnect with their families. Tamrakar says that with money running out, all of them feel trapped and are living in fear.
“We do nothing but sit and talk and use the internet. It's scary because there is no saying when this is going to end. That is why we want to come back,” he said.
But given the response of the government to other Nepalis asking to be allowed to come home, he isn’t very hopeful.
“The government hasn't even allowed Nepalis stranded in India to come home,” said Tamrakar. “How can we expect them to rescue us from Thailand?”