Undocumented migrant workers left to fend for themselvesAs officials only provide airfare to those with valid labour permits, a large number of workers, who overstayed or migrated through informal routes, remain deprived of government assistance to return home.
When Prem migrated to work for a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur six years ago, he hadn’t imagined returning home would be so difficult.
As coronavirus cases started growing in Malaysia, the government on March 18 enforced a movement control order, which among other things banned flights to and from Malaysia.
Two days later, on March 21, Prem’s visa expired. Three days after that, Nepal went into a complete lockdown with all flights cancelled.
With his visa expired, and workplace shut, Prem from Sankhuwasabha has been waiting to return home to his family with three children.
“All I have done in the last five months is sleep,” said Prem, who wanted to be identified only by his first name. “When repatriation flights began, my employer refused to send me home on expensive chartered flights and asked me to wait until regular flights resumed. Instead, I have been handed a bill of around 5,000 Malaysian Ringgit (around Rs 142,000) for boarding and PCR test.”
It is generally the employer’s responsibility to pay for the flight tickets of Nepali migrant workers in Malaysia.
Prem’s hope of flying home was rekindled when Nepal’s Supreme Court in June ordered the government to sponsor the return of citizens stranded abroad using money from the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund. But his excitement was again short-lived.
“When I inquired about the free return ticket, I found it was not only complicated, but came with various preconditions,” said Prem. “It is only for those who were laid off when their work permit was still valid. The scheme doesn’t cover workers like me who have been working abroad for several years and are now without valid visas,” he said referring to the guidelines of the scheme.
Such preconditions for getting government support is not only discriminatory towards those who migrated after receiving the official labour permit and overstayed, but also towards those who migrated through informal routes, said migrant rights activists.
A workers are undocumented in the eyes of the Nepali government if they migrated without a labour permit, travelled via informal and unsafe routes, or overstayed after their work-permit expired. Workers are deemed “illegal” even if they got their visas extended with help from their employers. Those who absconded from their employer and violated the destination country’s immigration rules are also not accorded government support.
“We have seen sluggish progress in evacuation even in the case of documented workers. We can only imagine the condition of the undocumented,” said Rameshwar Nepal, a labour migration researcher.
As per the guidelines the government prepared following the Supreme Court order, the government foots the full airfare of workers who lost their jobs in their first year of employment. The number goes down to 75 for workers who lost their employment after a year or more before their contract period expired. Those who have returned to their jobs after getting re-labour permits are only entitled to receive support equivalent to 50 percent of their airfare.
Full airfare coverage is also provided to workers detained at deportation centres after receiving amnesty over violation of different laws of the host countries.
“This policy doesn’t talk about how it will benefit undocumented Nepali workers,” said Shom Prasad Luitel, a lawyer and a member of the guidelines drafting team. “We had raised concerns about undocumented workers during the drafting process. But the labour ministry told us that it would come up with another policy to cover undocumented ones.”
The government doesn’t have data on the number of undocumented workers living in various labour countries. But the number of people requiring repatriation after the expiration of their work permit is going up every day, as shown by a recent report.
“Undocumented workers are more vulnerable even during normal times. But neither the repatriation guidelines nor the scheme to provide airfare considers them,” said Nepal, South Asia director at Equidem Research, a UK-based human rights research organisation.
While even documented migrant workers faced various forms of exploitation in the labour destination countries, the undocumented have to live with exploitations and inhumane treatment, according to migrant rights activists Nepal and Luitel.
“Regular workers can at least make their claims to local authorities in case of any discrimination and exploitation,” said Nepal. “Undocumented ones have to live in fear of reprisal. Although labour destination countries have assured that there shall not be such discrimination, undocumented labourers are treated differently.”
The case of undocumented women workers is of special concern. A large number of women, who migrated despite the government ban on women taking domestic jobs in the Gulf, fall under the undocumented category.
These women migrants have been excluded from all government repatriation and reintegration schemes, criticised for not being women-friendly.
But some say help has been extended to them as in the case of nearly 3,000 Nepali migrant workers who got to return home after availing the Kuwaiti government’s general amnesty.
“We need to find out the reasons why women use informal and unsafe routes and work as undocumented workers. It could be government policies or unemployment in Nepal that incites them to take this step,” said Nepal. “We have to rise above what happened in the past and treat them like any other Nepali citizen.”
Meanwhile, Prem and his seven other Nepali colleagues have accepted that they will be spending the whole of 2020 in Malaysia.
“Even stepping into my own country will require a minimum of Rs 100,000 now. But I don’t have the money nor can I receive government support,” said Prem. “I have given up hope. The government must be somewhere in Baluwatar, but from here in my room in Malaysia, I can’t see my government.”