Arresting corrupt officials isn't going to solve the problem unless the system is thoroughly cleansed
When the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) arrested employees from the Department of Immigration, Airport Customs, and the Department of Foreign Labour last month, many felt the action was long overdue at an airport notorious for corruption and victimisation of migrant workers.
It has been two years since Chief Secretary Leela Mani Paudyal, who was the secretary at the PM’s office at that time, submitted a report to the Baburam Bhattarai government detailing the bribery, harassment, and victimisation at Kathmandu airport. The report estimated then that the daily kickbacks and payoffs totalled Rs 2 million.Paudyal told Nepali Times this week: "CIAA's investigation could provide a great opportunity to begin reform in one of the most corrupt departments."
The CIAA says it is acting on complaints by victims and media reports of recruitment agencies being in cahoots with immigration personnel to extort departing and arriving Nepali overseas contract workers. The agency says 16 officials are under investigation and five others have been charged. “There is enough proof, testimonies, and audio-visual material to prosecute those accused,” says CIAA spokesperson Shreedhar Sapkota.
MIN RATNA BAJRACHARYA
Men queue outside Dasrath stadium as they await their turn to submit applications for employment in South Korea.
The airport earned notoriety last year when a young Nepali woman returning from Saudi Arabia was detained for having a false passport, extorted by immigration officials, and raped by a policeman. When the case exploded in the media, it showed just how blatant and widespread the victimisation of vulnerable Nepalis by fellow Nepalis was. Of the accused in that case the rapist and an immigration official are in jail and two are on bail pending trial (see below).
Satra Gurung of Paurakhi, an organisation that helps women returnees rehabilitate, says her volunteers have seen customs officials sell departure cards for up to Rs 1,000. “When these women come back from the Gulf, they are mentally ill, some are pregnant, and some come back with children. Above all, they come back nearly broke and airport officials use this vulnerability to corner them,” says Gurung.
Many other Nepalis who were given fake documents by recruiters when they left the country get caught on return and are vulnerable and targeted for extortion and abuse by predator officials at the airport and at the immigration detention facility in Kalikasthan. Even if they escape the clutches of airport officials, Nepali workers, especially women, are often abused by their foreign employers. A 37-year-old woman from Jhapa was tricked into boarding the plane to Saudi Arabia via India with a fake passport. In a town called Hayal in Saudi Arabia, her employer beat her, paid her less than her contract, and locked her up. The woman has now returned.
Another 24-year-old from Surkhet went to Saudi Arabia four years ago and came home twice without facing any hassle at Kathmandu airport. On her third time back last month, the rules were stricter and she was detained because her passport had been forged by her agent. She has been in detention in Kalikasthan for the past three weeks. About 50 women live with her in a small room that is so crammed that detainees can’t even lie down properly. Most are in custody for no fault of their own, but for being duped by agents who have given them forged passports. The women are kept for 25 days, fined, and released, but the manpower agencies that gave them the documents are never punished.
Nepalis working in Saudi Arabia were given general amnesty last month and most of them are returning home. Also last month, the Malaysian authorities cracked down on illegal migrant workers and about 500 of the estimated 60,000 illegals in Malaysia will be returning to Nepal.
“If the officers arrested by the CIAA spill the beans about their dealings with manpower agents none of us will be spared,” admitted one recruiter on condition of anonymity, explaining that it is the immigration and labour officials themselves who want to be paid off to issue permits to those desperate to leave the country.
Following the CIAA crackdown, director generals of all the departments under investigation weren’t available to comment on the irregularities in their respective areas.
Ganesh Gurung, former head of the Foreign Employment Management Improvement Advisory Taskforce, says the problems are deep rooted. “The structure in which the foreign employment sector is regulated is itself weak,” admits Gurung. “It doesn’t stop customs and security employees from crossing boundaries and working hand in hand with whoever offers the largest bribes.”
Gurung says brokers outside the system have inside knowledge of official information and use civil servants as well as security personnel to obtain files for themselves. “If the CIAA stops investigation, activity will increase again,” says Gurung
Gurung and his team had made a 30-point report last March on what could be done to improve regulatory standards at the airport immigrations and DFE. Among them are simple measures like fitting CCTV cameras at customs, using an electronic passport reader at immigration, and replacing cash-and-receipt payment system with electronic transactions. Gurung says that fake passport scams may decrease once Machine Readable Passports are made mandatory in 2015. But having seen passports disappear from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he says his team had recommended the government to burn old ones to avoid them being used in other scams.
After the CIAA crackdown, immigration officials have been protesting by allowing huge queues at the departure and arrival counters, creating a bad impression on visitors at the start of the tourist season and making life miserable for Nepalis. Ironically, it is worse when immigration officials suddenly become strict because students and businessmen travelling abroad get hassled.
Nepali passengers and migrant workers also face harassment at airport customs and the x-ray security machines where bribery is so routine that it is standard operating procedure. Those travelling alone, especially if they are young women or from minority ethnic groups, are particularly vulnerable to extortion and harassment. Passengers have been prevented from boarding flights because they refuse to pay bribes and immigration officials have been caught red-handed on tape receiving bribes.
Asmita Lama (name changed) of Solu Khumbu couldn’t apply for dentistry college in Thailand this year after being stopped by immigration officials. “I had to board the plane in half an hour, but they wouldn’t let me go saying I didn’t have a supporting letter from my sponsor in Bangkok,” says Asmita. After she showed the sponsor letter, the officials pointed out she needed a letter from the Thai embassy. “I had my visa, my academic certificates, sponsorship letter from Bangkok, but they sent me back citing poor documentation.”
Activists working to protect the rights of migrant workers say the problem of extortion and abuse is so rife at Kathmandu airport that the CIAA action, although welcome, does not go deep enough to tackle the institutionalised corruption and the culture of impunity. “This is not the first time corruption cases have been brought forward, tighter regulations need to be in place to stop such irregularities,” says Mahendra Pandey of Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee, which works for the protection of migrant workers’ rights and runs a shelter house for male migrant labourers in Kathmandu. “The few who cooperate with us at the airport and try to change the system are routinely transferred and demanded justification for trying to reform practices there.”
Each day the airport receives up to four bodies of Nepalis. There is no morgue at the airport, so the Human Remains House of the import-export division is meant to handle this. But the office remains open only from 10am to 6pm, so the coffins are kept in a store room below the parking area at the airport until someone comes to claim them. Ram Kumar Raya, head of cargo at TIA, says, “There are no immediate plans to build a proper morgue within this fiscal year.”
The families of many of the victims have borrowed or sold property to send them abroad and get no compensation. Often, they don’t have any insurance either. Meanwhile, the Rs 1,000 that the Department of Labour collects from every migrant worker leaving the country has now reached a staggering total. It could be used to compensate the families of the dead, but no one is willing to take that decision.
A former high ranking official at the foreign employment department said on the condition of anonymity that institutional reform isn’t possible during a single tenure. “We updated the database of migrant workers in the Gulf region and encouraged people to go through legal channels,” he explains, “but until our staff and other stakeholders change their attitude towards airport, immigration, and the foreign employment sector, it will be tough to put an end to the rampant irregularities.
At what cost the remittance money
Waiting for justice
Sita worked as a domestic help in Saudi Arabia for three years before returning to Nepal in November 2012. She was caught at Tribhuvan International Airport for possessing a fake passport. During interrogation at the immigration office in Kalikasthan, officers took her money and police constable Parsuram Basnet raped her. She went back home to Bhojpur empty handed and exposed her story in the media after finding out she was pregnant.
Parsuram Basnet and another official are now behind bars. Two immigration officials, Tika Pokhrel and Ram Prasad Koirala, were granted bail and the case against them is being heard at Kathmandu District Court. “We are hoping that the officers implicated in Sita’s case will be found guilty soon,” says Sita’s brother, Amar. “But unless officials at the top who oversee the corruption are punished, many young women like my sister will continue to suffer.”