All repatriation flights called off for an indefinite periodWhile tens of thousands of Nepalis without jobs and enough food are still stranded in various countries and desperate to return home, the abrupt decision to suspend all evacuation flights puts them in further limbo.
At a time when tens of thousands of Nepalis, mainly migrant workers, were preparing to return home, the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre on Monday abruptly asked the government to cancel all the planned evacuation flights for an indefinite period.
The Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC), the body responsible for implementing Covid-19 measures to contain the spread of the virus, has written to the Civil Aviation Ministry to suspend all the pre-scheduled flights for now.
Under the fifth repatriation scheme, the government had permitted flights from August 16 to 30.
The government has already revised its earlier plan to resume flights from August 17, deciding to allow them from September 1 only in the wake of a sudden surge in the coronavirus cases.
At least two officials at the Civil Aviation Ministry and Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal said they were surprised at the CCMC’s abrupt decision as it may affect hundreds of Nepali migrant workers who had already made preparations to return home. “It’s an ad-hoc decision,” said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the matter.
The government has brought home 51,441 Nepalis from 58 countries as of Monday. But tens of thousands, as per various estimates, are still waiting to return home, after losing their jobs.
On August 6, Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada who is also the government’s spokesperson, said that the government would bring back around 45,000 Nepalis stranded in different countries who have registered their names with different Nepali embassies and consulates.
On Monday, Nepal reported three more Covid-19-related deaths, taking the toll to 107 while the total number of cases reached 27,241 after the confirmation of 581 new infections in different parts of the country.
The CCCM said in its letter sent to the Civil Aviation Ministry that the request to cancel pre-scheduled flights for evacuating Nepalis was made after the coronavirus cases increased in recent days and local levels have issued prohibitory orders. There has been no information on available hotels for quarantining returnees, it said.
In the present condition, flights can be operated only after an assurance of hotel quarantine facilities, the letter reads. “Hence, all flights should be suspended.”
The Hotel Association of Nepal had in June agreed to provide tourist-standard and star-rated hotels for quarantine purposes as per the government’s request, and accordingly more than five dozen hotels’ names were submitted to the government. The rate ranged from Rs2,000 to Rs8,000 per night depending on the standard of the hotels. But according to hoteliers, only few hotels have been used in which the government has housed health workers.
“The move to cancel repatriation flights is a haphazard decision,” another official from the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, who did not want to be identified, told the Post.
“This will have an immediate effect on hundreds of Nepali workers who had already made up their mind to return home. They must have booked their tickets, in some cases also quit their jobs, and made all the arrangements to return home after months of wait. This decision will leave them in further anguish.”
The government’s evacuation has already been criticised for being sluggish even after months. To make matters worse, only days before the government had decided to restrict the arrival number of Nepalis being repatriated.
Last week, the Cabinet meeting decided to allow repatriation passenger flights to bring in not more than 500 people from abroad daily, which has drawn criticism for migrant rights activists. As per the decision, 300 of the passengers should be brought based on recommendations by diplomatic missions and 200 under the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund repatriation programme.
The meeting had also decided that returnee should be kept in quarantine in Kathmandu valley and sent to home after making sure they are not infected. The health ministry shall take the responsibility to test returnees after 5-7 days of their arrival.
Following the CCMC decision, airline companies and Nepalis missions have also issued notices about the cancellation of evacuation flights.