Nepal to Turkey, and onwards

Nepalis gathering in Istanbul in December 2017. The number of Nepalis applying for labour approvals to work in Turkey jumped from less than 100 in 2014 to more than 1,500 in five years.

When Shyam Kala Rai moved to Turkey for domestic work in 2012, she struggled to find fellow Nepalis. Today, there are Nepalis in most major cities in the country that straddles Europe and Asia.

In 2014 fewer than 100 Nepalis took labour approvals for Turkey, by 2019 that figure had jumped to over 1,500. It is estimated to be much more now.

Rai is now vice-chair of the Non-resident Nepalese Association (NRNA) in Turkey and says the country is becoming a popular destination for Nepali overseas workers, especially women caregivers. 

She says, “Turkey is a good option. They can earn anywhere from $500 to $1,200 a month if they are determined to work hard and provide for the family back home, like I did.” 

But many young female migrants are not mentally and physically prepared for domestic work when they arrive, or they use the job of household help as a jumping-off point for other work, Rai says.  

“For some, the only objective initially is to somehow make it abroad. But reality bites once they arrive and find that the work is not so glamorous,” she adds. “Many women escape their employers to work in spas, as part-time live-out domestic workers, or in other sectors and lose their legal status.” 

Shyam Kala Rai has been living in Istanbul since 2012. vice-chair of the Non-resident Nepalese Association (NRNA) in Turkey.

This is why the number of undocumented Nepali workers has grown, while others overstay their tourist visas. For employers, hiring undocumented workers can be cheaper as it relieves them from formal responsibilities like obtaining work permits or paying for monthly insurance which is costly in Turkey.

But when Covid-19 hit, undocumented workers found themselves in a tough spot. Many with jobs in the hospitality sector lost their jobs, rent became unaffordable, and sometimes up to 20 Nepalis were sharing one apartment. Irregular workers were ineligible for support from the government.

Ujjal Kumar Ghising, who heads NRNA Turkey estimates that there may have been up to 4,000 Nepalis in Turkey pre-COVID, but that number is decreased as many opted to return to Nepal. Others headed crossed over to Greece and into Europe. The devaluation of the Turkish lira added to the push factor. 

Nepal does not have an embassy in Ankara, and it is the country’s embassy in Islamabad that is accredited to Turkey. With so many Nepalis here, growing trade and regular flights by Turkish Airlines, the absence of a diplomatic presence here is sorely felt.

“The Nepali consulate here is closed, and the NRNA tries to respond to the needs of Nepalis here, but there is only so much we can do,” says Ghising. “An official diplomatic presence here would be able to mobilise support for Nepalis from problematic placement officers or employers faster than we could.”

A task as simple as renewing a passport, for example, can be cumbersome as documents need to be sent to Islamabad, then Kathmandu and returned to Turkey.

In addition, the absence of a labour agreement with destination countries like Turkey is also a problem since there is a range of issues that require collaboration and regular dialogue between the two governments.

An official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kathmandu (MoFA) acknowledged that Nepal and Turkey should forge closer ties, and have regular diplomatic dialogue. Nepal had sent a draft bilateral labour agreement to Ankara but progress has been stalled because of the pandemic.

“There are employment opportunities in Turkey, especially for female workers but the embassy in Pakistan has not been attesting job demand letters,” complains Sujit Shrestha of NAFEA (Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies). In 2019, 20 recruitment agencies in Kathmandu were engaged in deploying workers to Turkey. 

The MoFA official interviewed for this report said that most job demands in Turkey are for Nepali caregivers, but provisions needed to be in place to ensure their safety via a bilateral labour agreement given the sensitivity of the sector.

However, Ghising of NRNA Turkey says that if the recruiting agency is responsible and partners with a reliable Turkish placement office, the chances are higher that the Nepali worker lands a good employer or receive help in case there are problems. There have been recent complaints of underpaid salaries and recruiters not responding to Nepali workers’ pleas for help.

But the lack of demand attestation by the embassy has not stopped some recruitment agencies from bypassing the rule and obtain individual labour approvals instead of having one from agencies that would make them jointly liable with employers for compensation. 

“The Game”

Besides being an increasingly popular destination for Nepali workers, Turkey is also a transit for Nepalis wanting to cross into Europe – which is referred to as “the game”.

Ramesh is one Nepali who successfully completed his “game” to cross over to Greece, and then on to Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy over 50 days to finally land up in France where he is now. 

Cooking food at a jungle camp in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Migrants including Ramesh trekking across the Slovenia-Italy border en route to France.

South Asian agents, mostly Pakistani, facilitate the crossing from Turkey to Greece, and Turkey-based Nepali agents are usually at the lower rungs of the network. Most Nepalis take the land route to Greece, and not the more dangerous seas crossing, walking day and night for a week to reach the border.

A group of Nepalis and other South Asians rest In the forest in Croatia.

“When you are walking in the dark and if a vehicle passes by, you are instructed to just drop to the ground wherever you are and lay low till the coast is clear,” Ramesh recalled. “We survived on roti and biscuits, but the most painful part of it for me was the thirst. There was no water to drink.” 

It was only in his third attempt that Ramesh finally made it across, and says he is fortunate that the Pakistani agent did not charge him any fee when he got caught and was sent back twice. 

After he made it across, he paid the agent 2,000 euros and took a train to Athens with other South Asians. He then travelled across the Balkans to Italy, braved wild animals, and highway robbers, slippery trails and dangerous river crossings. 

There were moments of respite, like helping pick grapes in Macedonia where a local family fed them and were hospitable. “It did not matter that we did not speak each other’s languages there was just a feeling that we were all human,” says Ramesh, admitting that he has been luckier than other Nepalis who have been caught, beaten, detained or deported en route.

“Many are left to die in the forests. Many never make it. I did,” he says. Ramesh is willing to share his story because he wants to warn other Nepalis how difficult “the game” is.

“You have to know what the deal is, and if it is worth it,” he adds, “when you are desperate you take risks. I kept telling myself, I was doing this not for myself but for my children’s future in Nepal.” 

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