A national debateIt is unrealistic to say that Nepali youths should not go abroad to work, but some things need to change
The bodies of 12 Nepalis, mostly youths, killed in a minibus explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 20 were received by the devastated families, the country’s prime minister and a large number of people who were present at the airport. Many watched it on television. One more person who had succumbed to the injury has also passed away recently, and five others are receiving treatment outside Nepal. For us Nepalis, June 20 was a very grim day by all accounts.
Burden of terrorism
Among the appellations of the victims, their military background is highlighted everywhere. But the reality is that they were only acting as security guards at the Canadian Embassy. Their status was simply that of Nepali migrant workers. Nepal has not fought any battles with Afghanistan. Two cases of engagement with Afghanistan may be cited as incidental moments of history. One is the case of a Nepali hero Balbhadra Kunwar and his Gurkha colleagues, recruited by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, who fighting alongside the Sikh colleagues had very badly defeated the Afghan jihadis in the Pir Sabak hill, in one of the Anglo-Afghan wars. The second is the active presence of the British Gurkha soldiers during the recent Afghan war. These incidents also indicate how the Nepali youths have been fighting battles around the world—a non-attached military engagement. Nepal has a very good relationship with the Afghan people. Thus, the recent incident is a terrorist killing innocent people, and nothing else.
We are living in the most explosive times by all accounts. Though we in Nepal live outside the turbulent zones, the scene of the inconsolable families at the airport on June 22 shows that we too have been experiencing in some ways the impact of the terrorist attacks that occur away from home. A similar incident had occurred 12 years ago when 12 Nepali youths were murdered by terrorists in Iraq. As a result, youths showed their anger to agencies that sent people to work in the Gulf countries, burned media houses, and even attacked a mosque in Kathmandu. But there will not be similar reactions this time round because reality has become more complex now, and the circumstances under which the Nepalis were killed are
different from those in Iraq. This incident is one among a series of events that have rocked Afghanistan very frequently these days. But if we look at this incident from our own point of view, we may find a number of stories that speak of our youth’s predicaments and the state of our economy that leaves few options than to go abroad as migrant labourers.
But this incident became highlighted because these Nepalis were the first direct victims and the nature of the killing was gruesome. It gives us enough reason to think that the terrorists must have been trying to discourage Nepalis from working as security guards in Kabul.
Greenery in desert
I was intrigued and moved to see the conditions under which the migrant Nepali workers were working in Qatar when I visited the country at the invitation of Dipak Bhetwal in November 2010. He along with some friends including Devendra Bhattarai, who had worked as the Kantipur representative there earlier, took me to meet the Nepali workers in remote places in the countryside. My impression has two sides. First, the Nepali migrant workers, who were mostly youths, were very talented. I was ecstatic to see a chunk of the desert entirely transformed into a green land by about 16 Nepali youths. The green fodder that they had grown had supported a thriving diary farm some six miles away. In another place, they were working under harsh conditions performing similar miracles. It was moving to see them maintain humour and zest in the face of hardships.
The then ambassador, Suryanath Sharma, an erstwhile professor and colleague, had kept a full record of all these workers and was able to monitor their position. I was convinced that if the right envoy works in tandem with a supportive Nepali government where there are people who do not work for commission “at the cost of the lives of the poor countrymen”, to use the expression of ambassador Suryanath, it is easy to help the migrant workers and their families back home.
Nepalis working abroad is not a new story. More than 200,000 Nepali youths fought in the two world wars, and have served in places like Hong Kong, Borneo, Falkland Islands, Malaysia, Kosovo, and Cyprus. Millions of others have been working under gruelling conditions at present. The Nepali migrant workers’ plight is very grim. Dead bodies of these workers come back very frequently. The figures are very disturbing; and the agony suffered by their families goes unnoticed and unreported.
It would be unrealistic to say that Nepali youths should not go abroad to work for their families. But the most realistic approach would be to start a national debate on the conditions of the migrant workers and the state’s responsibility to make sure that they get to work with full human dignity and are properly paid for their labour. In addition, their health conditions should be monitored properly.
It is perfectly possible for the government to keep records of the migrant workers, and to monitor their working conditions.
The state should be concerned about the plight of the Nepali youths who have saved the economy of this country from completely collapsing during difficult times. It is a matter of shame for the state to not even implement schemes like free-visa, free-ticket, either under pressure from the employment recruitment agencies or due to other reasons that are difficult to understand. The government should act firmly, and all the policies regarding migrant workers’ safety and work atmosphere should be transparent.