No immediate plan to evacuate workers affected by flight suspensionOfficials say the workers will be repatriated if suspension prolongs for an extended period.
Following the suspension of international flights by Nepal from May 6 midnight, hundreds of returnee and outbound Nepali migrant workers who had already booked their flights have been affected.
As part of its Covid-19 containment measures, the government of Nepal has issued prohibitory orders banning all non-essential services and travel and suspended both domestic and international flights. As per the government order, international flights to and from Nepal, except for two flights per week between Nepal and India, remain suspended from midnight of May 6 to May 14.
This has also affected migrant workers who wish to return home to flee the pandemic in the labour destination countries.
According to Dipak Kafle, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security, the government has been closely monitoring the situation.
“Although there was a couple of days of advance notice before suspension of international flights, Nepalis workers are definitely affected with the halting of flights,” Kafle told the Post. “We are closely watching the situation and getting updates from other government bodies like the Foreign Employment Board, which is responsible for the repatriation of workers.”
The Labour Ministry, meanwhile, said it does not have any data on the number of migrant workers affected by the flight suspension.
According to Rajan Prasad Shrestha, executive director with the Foreign Employment Board, on average about 700 Nepali workers return home every day from various labour destination countries.
“From last year’s repatriation experience, we had estimated that around 700 workers return home daily. Most of them return because their work contracts have expired,” said Shrestha. “So there could be around 6,000 to 7,000 Nepalis waiting to return home during the flights suspension period.”
However, Shrestha believes the number of Nepali migrants desperate to return home could be smaller this time.
“The situation does not look as grim as it was in 2020 when the pandemic had hit both the source and destination countries. This time, Nepali migrants might be reluctant to return home as the Covid-19 situation looks far worse in Nepal and India than in the destination countries,” said Shrestha. “As of now, there are no Nepalis stranded in destination countries. So the situation is not alarming enough so as to warrant immediate repatriation. But if the suspension is prolonged further then we will have to step in.”
Last year in 2020, when the world was ravaged by the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Nepalis living and working in labour destination countries, mainly in the Persian Gulf region, Malaysia and South Korea, faced many hardships.
Last year, tens of thousands of Nepali migrants had lost their jobs, lived under the fear of infection, faced shortage of basic necessities and ultimately returned home empty-handed.
Even after going through long waits for evacuation flights and complicated procedures, the stranded workers had to pay many times higher prices for their tickets on the evacuation flights home.
After the Supreme Court directed the government to repatriate the Nepali workers, who were languishing in lockdowns in various destination countries, on the state’s expenses, the government had come up with a set of repatriation guidelines. However, only around 200 Nepali workers could benefit from the scheme and returned home on the state’s expenses.
According to government officials, if the flight suspension prolongs for an extended period then the government itself might repatriate the Nepali workers.
“For now, the flight suspension is only for eight days and the government will decide about whether to end it or prolong it further depending upon the Covid-19 situation. Since only a few days remain for the current suspension to end, we have not thought of any plan for the returnees,” said Kafle, who is also a joint secretary with the Labour Ministry. “If the disruption continues for long, then the government must work to rescue its citizens in difficulties. We will see if we can work as per the existing repatriation guidelines or new guidelines are needed. But for this month [Nepali Baisakh month], nothing has been planned so far.”
Nepali missions abroad and the Foreign Employment Board can help if any Nepali worker is currently in difficulty due to the flight suspension, according to Kafle.
“A few flights are still allowed from India every week. So some workers can even return using the Indian route,” said Kafle.
Shrestha, the executive director with the Board, also concurred with Kafle that anyone facing difficulty abroad due to the flight suspension can seek support from the Nepali missions. He said the board would provide necessary funds to the missions.
“The foreign missions abroad can coordinate with the host government and take care of the workers whose work contracts have expired but are unable to return home. The number of such workers could be very small and manageable for now,” said Shrestha.
“Besides, last year’s repatriation guidelines are still in place, so the workers can be evacuated under the same guidelines. Also, the Board has been repatriating workers, who are in difficulty, throughout the year.”