Authorities plan to rescue Nepalis stranded abroad. But no one knows who will pay for itThere’s no clear decision yet on who pays for travel as the government plan hints at bringing them on chartered flights.
Sangam Prasain & Chandan Kumar Mandal
Last month, when the government made public its economic status, it was worried because workers' remittance had gone into the tailspin.
It counted the damage inflicted by falling remittance but did not bother to talk about the workers and ask about their condition as thousands of them have been rendered jobless.
Tens of thousands of Nepali migrant workers are now desperate to return home.
On Friday, after nearly two and a half months since Nepal enforced the lockdown, 169 Nepalis arrived from the United Arab Emirates—the first batch of migrant workers returning to Nepal.
But those who arrived home either paid airfares on their own or they boarded the plane on the mercy of the companies they were working at.
The Nepal government is still in a dilemma whether to charge them or make flight arrangements for free for the returning citizens.
Industry insiders and rights activists say since the government has been collecting funds from migrant workers for their welfare, it cannot charge them for their rescue.
More than Rs 7 billion has been collected in the workers’ welfare fund, and its purpose is to facilitate them in difficult times.
Most of the workers have already gone broke and are unable to finance the flight.
Pradeep Raj Lamsal, who works in Dubai, was shocked when his company messaged him in May and asked him not to come to office for at least six months.
"I don't have money to pay for chartered flights. I'm in deep trouble," said the 30-year-old man from Bhairahawa who works with a multinational chain. Since April, he has not earned a penny. He had registered his name at the embassy in April-end but has not heard back yet.
According to Anurag Devkota, a human rights lawyer, in response to the current unprecedented and emergency situation, the Foreign Employment Act, 2007 mandates ensuring migrant workers’ return home and levies arrangement liabilities vis-vis-vis repatriation on the government of Nepal.
“The primary purpose of the foreign employment welfare fund is the ‘welfare’ and social protection of migrant workers,” Devkota told the Post. “And by all means, the governing legislation of Nepal allows for the use of the welfare fund.”
Devkota has also filed a writ at the Supreme Court, demanding that the state bear cost of rescue and repatriation of migrant workers who are not in the capacity to pay.
According to Devkota, the provision of Foreign Employment Act, 2007 clearly sets up criteria for mobilising the fund where it explicitly takes into reference the situation of ‘return and repatriation’ of Nepali migrant workers as one of the conditions for mobilising the welfare fund.
“This is the right time that we utilise the fund because the welfare and protection of migrants have been more of a necessity than other welfare issues in the present context,” said Devkota.
According to officials, more Nepalis are likely to return home soon, but Nepali missions in labour destinations are grappling with some bigger challenges when it comes to sending their compatriots home.
Ambassadors from Persian Gulf countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia—the countries that host the majority of Nepali workers—say they face almost similar problems while preparing to repatriate migrant workers and are awaiting more clarity from the Nepal government.
During a virtual interaction with journalists on Friday, organised by the Labour Employment Journalists Group, ambassadors from these countries said they were expecting more clarity from the Nepal government on repatriation costs, when the repatriation will begin and the requirement for workers to produce health examination certificates for returning to Nepal.
According to envoys, the repatriation of Nepali workers should immediately begin, as workers in large numbers are waiting to return home, but there is still uncertainty about the modality of their home-coming, covering air tickets and medical examinations and flight dates.
Mahendra Prasad Singh Rajput, Nepali ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said so far nearly 10,000 Nepalis have applied to return home.
“We are currently in the pre-repatriation phase. Collecting data on Nepali workers, who are scattered all over the country, is a major challenge,” said Rajput. “All the embassies share similar problems. We can repatriate them. But we need clear instructions on flight dates, who will bear the flight costs and workers’ health report.”
The ambassadors expressed concerns over how the workers willing to return home would manage flight tickets. According to them, many employers had already given regular flight tickets to workers while others are hesitant to send them via chartered flights, as they can be more expensive than regular commercial flights.
“Some employers had given tickets for March 24 and March 25 before Nepal went on a lockdown. It will be difficult to reimburse airfares. Neither the employer nor the airline company would be ready to transfer these workers on chartered flights,” said Narad Nath Bharadwaj, the Nepali envoy to Qatar, where nearly 7,000 Nepalis have applied for repatriation. “They want to send workers back to Nepal on regular flights because of the expenses.”
According to Bharadwaj, the government should take back stranded Nepalis who are pregnant and sick at the earliest. At the same time, it would require at least a week to prepare and complete other procedural works with the Qatari government.
Udaya Raj Pandey, the Nepali envoy to Malaysia, suggested that the government should allow regular commercial flights for flying workers back to Nepal as a chartered flight ticket would take a minimum of Rs50,000 to Rs60,000.
“Many workers have already obtained tickets. We can request the employer and make them pay some additional amount required to reschedule them. But if we send workers on chartered flights only, it can be a problem,” said Pandey.
“Employers may not agree to pay for expensive chartered flights. We can allow regular Malaysia-Kathmandu flights. There are four flights every day. Commercial flights will compete among themselves, and workers can get a relatively cheaper deal.”
In Malaysia, over 7,000 Nepalis have approached the Nepali embassy requesting repatriation.
“What if a chartered flight is scheduled for a particular day and no one shows up? The flight cannot return empty,” said Pandey. “Commercial flights can be a viable option.”