Nepal scrambles to evacuate Nepalis from AfghanistanEasier said than done, officials say, as the country lacks diplomatic links and mechanisms, including dedicated ministers. Government relying on employing countries.
After Kabul’s fall to the Taliban on Sunday ended the United States’ era in Afghanistan, there has been panic and bedlam. As desperate Afghans are trying to flee the country, countries from around the world are scrambling to evacuate their citizens. So is Nepal.
But the Sher Bahadur Deuba government is in a fix.
Firstly, the Deuba administration lacks ministers at all three key three ministries (foreign affairs, labour and tourism) whose coordination is a must to bring Nepalis–there is no exact data of how many are there in the war-torn country–home. Secondly, it never had a direct diplomatic channel in Afghanistan. Thirdly, amid confusion after the Taliban takeover, it is difficult to establish communication with the new regime in Kabul.
The government, however, has said it “would do all it requires” to evacuate Nepalis from Afghanistan.
As pressure grew on the government, a Cabinet meeting on Monday instructed all concerned agencies to ramp up efforts to repatriate Nepali citizens from Afghanistan.
“The meeting has directed all related agencies to do all necessary work to ensure safe return of Nepalis from Afghanistan,” Gyanendra Bahadur Karki, minister for law and parliamentary affairs, told reporters after Monday’s Cabinet meeting.
Officials, however, were clueless as to how they are going to do so. For an evacuation plan, the government first needs to ascertain the number of Nepalis in Afghanistan.
“We have to know the number first and the status of Nepalis before sending evacuation flights,” Buddhi Sagar Lamichhane, joint secretary at the Civil Aviation Ministry, told the Post. “We are coordinating with all ministries and diplomatic agencies for a safe evacuation of Nepalis.”
According to the Department of Foreign Employment, in the last fiscal year, ending mid-July, 1,073 Nepalis had obtained labour permits to work in Afghanistan. The department’s statistics show that in the last seven years, more than 8,000 Nepalis have been issued labour permits to Afghanistan.
But there are no figures of the undocumented Nepali workers, and estimates suggest there could be more than 14,000. Afghanistan is one of the key countries, despite high risk, where Nepalis prefer to go due to high pay.
“We dont have the exact data on undocumented Nepalis working in Afghanistan. As of now, we have data of 1,500 Nepalis working in Afghanistan,” said Harish Chandra Ghimire, a joint secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Ghimire heads the task force formed by the government on Sunday for the safe repatriation of Nepali citizens from Afghanistan.
The task force consists of members from the ministries of foreign affairs, home, labour and employment, health, and tourism and civil aviation. Other members are from Nepal Police, Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre and Department of Consular Services.
Ghimire said the task force held a series of meetings on Monday.
“As soon as the security situation becomes normal, we will begin the repatriation process. There can be two ways,” he said. “The first option is seeking support from friendly nations. The second option is to repatriate Nepalis by sending planes from Nepal.”
For Nepal to send its planes, however, will take time.
All passenger flights out of the Kabul airport have been suspended starting Monday, according to the Afghanistan Civil Aviation Authority.
On Monday, international media reported chaos at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, as Afghan civilians rushed to the tarmac in desperate attempts to join foreign missions leaving the country. Images on social media showed desperate Afghans clinging onto airplanes.
Officials involved in diplomatic negotiations said that as of Monday evening, Nepali nationals in Afghanistan “are safe” as some of them, living legally and illegally, have come into their contact. While seeking help from various diplomatic missions and multilateral agencies, the Foreign Ministry has issued public notice to the families of the migrant workers to provide the details of their kin working in Afghanistan.
According to data provided by the Nepali Embassy in New Delhi, out of 579 Nepalis working inside the US Embassy in Kabul, 184 have already been repatriated and they are on their way to Nepal.
“We have told the US authorities to help evacuate those who are still inside the US diplomatic premises,” Ram Prasad Subedi, deputy chief of mission in New Delhi, which is accredited to look after Afghanistan as well, told the Post over the phone from the Indian capital.
Besides the US embassy, 467 Nepali nationals are working under various UN’s specialised agencies in Kabul, according to Subedi.
In the German embassy in Kabul, 60 Nepali nationals are working, in the United Kingdom embassy, there are 87 and in the Japanese embassy, the number of Nepali employees is 62. Around 60 Nepalis are working in the Canadian mission in Kabul as per the available data.
The Japanese authorities have assured that they would repatriate the Nepalis working within their premises within 72 hours in a chartered flight, according to officials.
“Nepalis working in various diplomatic missions and multilateral agencies inside the green zone of Kabul are safe. Government officials in Kathmandu and New Delhi have told them to repatriate them safely as per the bilateral agreement between the employees and the employers,” said a joint secretary, who is coordinating the rescue and repatriation operations. “We are also in constant touch with the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations refugee agency to ensure safe return and repatriation of Nepali citizens.”
As for those Nepalis who are outside Kabul and who are undocumented, repatration could be tough.
At least two Foreign Ministry officials, who did not wish to be named, said there is a diplomatic vacuum, as Nepal does not have any direct communication channel in Kabul.
After Bharat Raj Paudyal, the incumbent foreign secretary, left Pakistan as Nepal’s ambassador in 2016, none of the Nepali ambassadors have visited Afghanistan and presented their credentials. After Paudyal, Sewa Lamsal served as Nepali ambassador to Pakistan and returned last year, but she neither visited Kabul nor presented the credentials.
The government then transferred the Afghanistan accreditation from Islamabad to New Delhi. Nepal’s Ambassador to New Delhi Nilamber Acharya too has never visited Kabul.
On top of that, with the Taliban taking control, there is no way the Nepal government can establish any diplomatic channel immediately, according to an official at the ministry.
“We are using other channels to establish communication with Nepalis,” said the official.
Repatriation of Nepalis from Afghanistan was also raised in Parliament on Monday, as lawmakers questioned the government about its evacuation plan.
The main opposition CPN-UML came down heavily on Prime Minister Deuba for failing to appoint ministers even more than a month after assuming office, which it said has caused delay in rescuing Nepalis.
“Nepali citizens are in desperate need of evacuation. The government does not even know the number of Nepalis stranded in Afghanistan. They need immediate evacuation,” said lawmaker Bimala BK of the UML.
Bharat Shah, a lawmaker from the ruling Nepali Congress, said just a decision is not going to work.
“It needs prompt implementation,” said Shah while speaking in the lower house.
Many say the Taliban takeover was imminent ever since the United States announced the withdrawal of its troops by September and that the Nepal government should have started preparing the evacuation plan for Nepalis.
A senior Foreign Ministry official, however, said the government was closely monitoring the unfolding situation in Afghanistan.
“We were taking stock of the developments in Afghanistan and we had established contacts with diplomatic missions and UN agencies,” the official, who did not wish to be named, told the Post. “That’s how we concluded that there could be around 1,500 Nepalis remaining in Afghanistan.”
According to the official, the government had communicated with major employers inside the country like foreign missions and United Nations agencies.
“It’s the state’s duty to protect its citizens and ensure their safe return when they are at risk,” said the official. “We have data of those working inside the green zone, those working as supporting staff of allied forces and those working in different foreign installations. We don’t have the data of people working outside the green zone and we expect this number to be very small, as many may have already returned home.”
The government had imposed a ban on Nepali citizens from working in Afghanistan in July 2016 after 13 Nepalis who were security guards at the Canadian embassy in Kabul were killed in an attack on a bus on June 23 that year.
But Nepal, which relies heavily on remittances from its migrant workers, lifted the ban four months later after a large number of Nepalis, especially ex-army and ex-police personnel, started to use illegal channels to migrate to Afghanistan. Nepalis are still banned from working in other conflict hotspots such as Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Officials say it is difficult to say the exact number of Nepalis in Afghanistan.
Krishna Prasad Dawadi, director general of the Department of Foreign Employment, said in the last two fiscal years, the department had issued permits to around 1,500 Nepalis.
According to him, normally Nepalis spend two years in Afghanistan, and the government estimate is that around 1,500-2,000 Nepalis could be there.
“Based on the latest report we received from various manpower agencies responsible for sending Nepalis to Afghanistan, about 330 individuals have reached Qatar. And 437 are awaiting rescue at Kabul airport,” he said. “We don’t know how many Nepalis reached Afghanistan without taking labour permits.”
Official figures show that around 15,000 labour permits have been issued since Afghanistan became a draw for Nepali migrant workers.
Dawadi, however, said as Nepalis usually get a two-year contract, most of them must have returned by now.
“They can return home on leave also after spending one year,” Dawadi told the Post. “We don’t have data on the number of Nepalis who have returned from Afghanistan, as we started keeping data of returnees only a few months ago.”
After the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on Nepali citizens to register their name, their address, contact details and their contacts in Nepal, around three dozen Nepalis living in Kabul have already sent emails and contacted the designated Nepali officials.
“Some 135 Nepalis have contacted us,” said Subedi, the deputy chief of mission in New Delhi. “They are safe and living near a hotel in Kabul and we are in touch with them.”
Nepalis in Afghanistan can register here: https://mofa.gov.np/registration/
For rescue: (Viber/ WhatsApp) +977-9749326458 (Department of Consular Services)/ +977-9749326459 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Any other information on recent developments in Afghanistan:
Embassy of Nepal, New Delhi
Hotline: +91-8929601925 (WhatsApp)