Nepali repatriation from Kabul starts

118 Nepalis arrived in Kathmandu from Afghanistan via Kabul on Tuesday.

Although Nepali security guards at Western embassies in Kabul have been evacuated and some have arrived in Kathmandu, there are thousands of others who are stranded in Afghanistan and fearful about their future.

Of the over 500 Nepali security guards employed by a private defence contractor to protect the US, German, UK and EU embassies in Kabul, 118 guarding American facilities arrived in Kathmandu on Tuesday via Kuwait.

‘The US government has facilitated the departure of all Nepali Gurkhas who worked at the US Embassy in Afghanistan,” US Ambassador to Nepal Randy Berry tweeted. ‘We are grateful for their bravery and service.’

However, there are said to be hundreds of other Nepalis guarding other embassies who are awaiting for flights out. The British Embassy is still operational and the ambassador is still in Kabul, although not in the Embassy itself. All Nepalis working for the British Embassy have now been evacuated. There are several hundred Nepalis employed by the United Nations and its field offices across Afghanistan.

Manuel Micaller, deputy chief of mission US Embassy Kathmandu, welcoming the first batch of 118 Nepali security guards who were protecting the US Embassy in Kabul at Kathmandu airport on Tuesday. Photo: US Embassy

Nepal’s embassy in New Delhi has been trying to coordinate the repatriation of Nepalis, and the concern now is about the thousands of Nepalis who are not guarding western embassies, those who are outside Kabul, and undocumented workers. Collecting them in safe places in Kabul and arranging the dozens of flights needed to bring them out would be a challenge.

The task is made more difficult because of the lack of a Nepali embassy in Kabul, and the embassy in Islamabad not being accredited to Afghanistan. A land evacuation through Pakistan would be possible, but would need careful coordination between the foreign ministry in Kathmandu, embassies in Islamabad and New Delhi.

“Not having an embassy on the ground makes things more difficult,” says foreign policy expert Rajan Bhattarai. “Our embassy in Delhi needs to be in close touch with the embassy in Pakistan and other western governments. They have to use all means possible, including personal contacts.”

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s government is embroiled in coalition politics, and there has been no designated foreign minister for the past month. However, Foreign Secretary Bharat Raj Paudyal, who used to be Nepal’s ambassador to Pakistan, was handling Afghanistan and is familiar with Kabul.

The chief of the Central, West Asia and Africa Section of the Foreign Ministry Harish Chandra Ghimire is heading a special task force to arrange repatriation flights in coordination with embassies, the UN and foreign governments.

Kabul airport is still closed for commercial flights, so any repatriation has to be done in coordination with military evacuation of countries in whose embassies the Nepalis are stationed. For the others, Nepal will either have to send special flights, or arrange for repatriation via Pakistan. But the government does not even have accurate figures for the exact numbers involved.

According to the Department of Foreign Employment, more than 10,000 Nepalis obtained labour permits to work in Afghanistan in the past six years, and 2,122 of them were issued just in the last two years. Some of the Nepalis have returned, others had renewed their contracts and recently returned to Afghanistan. However, there are said to be at least 5,000 more Nepalis, mostly working as security guards in hotels, banks and other institutions in Kabul and major cities.

However, one of the Nepali security guards guarding the US Embassy who arrived in Kathmandu on Tuesday told Nepali Times the security situation in Kabul was not as bad as portrayed in the media with the videos of the airport chaos, and that Nepalis there were in no imminent danger.

“Foreign workers are safe in Kabul, in fact the Taliban have promised that they will ensure the safety of foreign workers in future when the situation returns to normal, they might call them back,” said 41-year-old Prakash Shrestha of Lamjung.

A Nepal Airlines jet has been chartered for next week by a Dubai-based recruiter to bring back 70 Nepali workers, but that would just be a small fraction of those in Afghanistan.

“There are at least 15,000 Nepalis in Afghanistan who have gone there either through legal channels or are undocumented,” estimates Sujit Shrestha of the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA).

He explains that Nepali workers in Afghanistan fall in three main categories: ex-soldiers who have been hired long-term officially by private military contractors mainly to guard embassies in Kabul, another 4-5,000 Nepalis who work as security guards who have gone to Afghanistan on their own via Dubai or Delhi, and three there are Nepalis who work in hotels and offices as support staff.

“It is the second and third categories who are most at risk,” Shrestha says, who adds that there could be up to 400 Nepalis who are undocumented.

The Nepal Embassy in Delhi has asked all Nepalis still in Kabul to fill out online forms with contact details. There are said to be at least 450 Nepali security guards waiting for flights in a special section of Kabul airport.

Even before Kabul fell to the Taliban, 260 Nepalis employed by the private defence contractor Forca and 150 with Eagle had been repatriated to Nepal.

A Nepali in Kabul who did not want to be identified because he is undocumented told Nepali Times by phone: “We hear the Nepal government is trying to get Nepalis back. We are waiting for information. Our only hope is our own government.” He is hiding in a room in the city with three other Nepalis.