Government says it will evacuate all troubled Nepali workers within a month, but labour migration experts have doubtsThe hitherto procedural complications and lack of coordination among government agencies are not going to be resolved overnight to bring home tens of thousands of citizens in such a short period, say experts.
The government’s announcement of completing the evacuation process of stranded Nepali migrant workers from various coronavirus-stricken countries within a month has met with scepticism, if not ridicule, from labour migration experts.
Since the repatriation began in June, 63,347 Nepali migrant workers have returned home as of Tuesday. However, the statistics of the Labour Ministry show that 48,865 workers have returned so far while 133,485 others have applied to return home.
With this calculation, more than 84,000 workers are still awaiting repatriation. And as per the claim made by Labour Minister Rameshwor Ray Yadav before the Commerce and Labour and Consumers Welfare Committee of Parliament on Sunday, these workers based in various labour destination countries should be home within a month.
It’s a bold statement coming from the labour minister, given that he has set out to achieve in one month what the government has failed to do in more than three months, say labour migration experts and some government officials.
Even the parliamentary committee looks askance, what with the sluggish progress of the government’s repatriation programme so far.
Concerned with the condition of Nepali migrant workers languishing in variou labour destination countries and the government’s slow response, the parliamentary committee had directed the Labour Ministry, Tourism Ministry and Foreign Affairs Ministry to rescue and repatriate the workers at the earliest.
Responding to the queries of the committee members, Minister Yadav asserted that the stranded Nepalis would be brought home within a month.
“Without setting a specific time frame, the committee has instructed the concerned ministries to bring home the stranded Nepalis as early as possible. But Labour Minister Yadav said that the evacuation process would be completed within a month,” Jhalak Sharma Sapkota, secretary of the parliamentary committee, told the Post.
At the current rate of repatriation, Sapkota said “it would take a minimum of two years to bring home all the citizens.”
There are several factors slowing down the repatriation process which the government has apparently not considered and they are not going to be resolved overnight.
On the one hand, Sapkota said, the government is claiming that it would bring home all stranded Nepalis at the earliest, and on the other, there is a capping on the number of Nepalis to be brought home.
“Then, there is also the issue of the ever-increasing number of workers whose visas and work permits have expired. Realistically, it is not possible to repatriate all the workers in a month,” Sapkota added.
Rameshwar Nepal, South Asia director of Equidem Research, a UK-based human rights research organisation, welcomes the Labour Minister Yadav’s show of commitment to evacuate the stranded Nepalis in foreign lands, but questions the viability of flying back home tens of thousands of citizens within a month.
“It is not possible at all. During a separate discussion, the labour minister has also said not only regular workers but also undocumented workers and those living in India will be brought home. This is hard to believe,” said Nepal, who is also a labour migration researcher.
Doubts about the government's latest repatriation plan stems from hitherto sluggish response to bring home the troubled citizens, the lack of preparation and the dearth of coordination among line agencies, among various other factors.
“With all these efforts, operation of repatriation chartered flights and then the resumption of flights, the government had managed to bring over 63,000 workers till date. There are still tens of thousands workers who wish to return,” said Nepal, explaining the herculean task that lies ahead.
“To make matters worse, the labour permits of 267,000 workers have expired during the 178 days of suspension of international flights at the rate of 1,500 per day.”
Ever since the coronavirus pandemic started to affect major labour destination countries for Nepalis, the government has been facing criticism for its lethargic response and series of indecisions that have left Nepali migrant workers struggling for months.
Som Lamichhane, director with the Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee, an organisation working for the rights of Nepali migrant workers, suggests taking the government’s announcement with a large pinch of salt.
“If the government genuinely wishes to, it can complete the evacuation,” he told the Post. “But there are ample rooms for doubt. Looking at the progress thus far, the lack of coordination among ministries and poor preparation on the ground, it is a difficult target to meet. The Labour Ministry has unveiled its plan, but it is the Tourism Ministry that decides the flights.”
Procedural delays and confusions on repatriation policies aside, the government also needs to consider the quarantine facilities and the travel plans of the repatriated citizens to their respective hometowns once they land in Kathmandu, not to mention in huge numbers.
Nepal, the labour migration researcher, says the government is simply not prepared to bring home such a large number of workers in a short period.
“For instance, there is no data on who wants to return from which city of India. Do Nepali missions have enough resources to send back a massive number of workers in a month?” said Nepal. “The minister has announced the goal but where is the work plan? There is no coordination among government agencies. Moreover, we are relying on two Nepali airlines for flying back thousands of workers, which will take several months, if not years.”
The Labour Ministry, however, looks optimistic.
“We can bring any number of workers provided there are enough flights,” Bharatmani Pandey, spokesperson for the Labour Ministry, told the Post. “It all depends upon the number of flights which are fixed by the Tourism Ministry.”
While the Labour Ministry cannot do anything about the flight situation, Pandey said there must have been discussions at the high level before Labour Minister Yadav made the announcement before the parliamentary committee.
On Sunday, the parliamentary committee had also specifically pointed out that the lack of coordination among the government agencies had severely delayed the repatriation process.
Sapkota, the secretary of the parliamentary committee, said the government must increase the flight numbers to expedite the ongoing repatriation of Nepali workers.
“Nepali airlines should increase its number of flights to countries where they have been flying while other airlines should be allowed to fly to the remaining countries to speed up the repatriation,” said Sapkota. “Tourism minister was absent without any prior information from the meeting, much to our concern. For the current crisis, the government should respond accordingly by allocating enough resources.”