Nepalis in Kuwait apply to return home

Undocumented workers in Kuwait from Nepal line up for travel documents at the Nepal Embassy in Kuwait.

More than 2,500 undocumented Nepali workers in Kuwait have taken advantage of the government’s amnesty to apply for travel documents so they can eventually fly back to Kathmandu. Kuwait announced the move last month aimed mainly at Bangladeshi and other South Asian workers without proper papers. Under the scheme, overstay fees are waived, workers are offered free flights home, and transitory housing and food till their travel dates. In addition, workers are allowed to return to Kuwait for employment legally. The month-long scheme has been phased by nationality, and the slot for Nepalis to apply is between April 26-30. There are an estimated 7,000 undocumented Nepali workers in Kuwait who could benefit. Some 2,500 Nepali workers have applied for travel documents at the Nepal Embassy in Kuwait while those with valid passports apply directly with the Kuwaiti authorities and do not need to go through the embassy.

One Nepali woman arrived in Kuwait two years ago even though her agent had promised to take her to Israel. She had to spend a month in Delhi and travel via India because of the Nepal government’s ban on female Nepali workers travelling to the Gulf. The Kuwaiti family where she worked was abusive, and she ran away to her placement office. She finally found other Nepali women in similar situations, and worked at odd jobs without papers. But with the COVID-19 crisis, it has not been easy. She has decided at take up the amnesty offer, and was at the Nepal Embassy this week to make a new travel document. She has been put up in a temporary shelter in a converted school, and shares a classroom with 14 other Nepali women. “The accommodation is good. The food could be better, but I cannot complain. We are waiting for tests. We are packed and ready with our belongings. I just want to go home,” she said over the phone. For workers who have racked up overstay fines, and do not have jobs because of the pandemic, the amnesty offer provides relief. Most are domestic workers including female migrants.

While the Kuwaiti amnesty move has been welcomed, some human rights activists say Kuwait is using the pandemic as an excuse to get rid of undocumented workers. They say sooner or later, other Gulf countries will also start pressuring Nepal to take back its workers. In fact, the UAE has asked some South Asian countries to take back workers who want to return. This week there were large crowds at the Nepal Embassy in Kuwait City as undocumented workers lined up in scorching heat to apply for travel documents. “We try to manage the crowd and ask them to maintain distance, but there were just too many workers,” said the NRNA volunteer. “They are just so desperate, we can just pray that there will not be any transmission.” There have so far been 3,440 confirmed coronavirus cases in Kuwait, of which 51 are Nepali. Nepalis in Kuwait are helping each other in times of need. One Nepali female worker said a dai drove her 35km to the embassy and dropped her back home, and that was just one of the many trips he made to help fellow-Nepalis. The embassy has also sprung into action after initial hiccups over getting the necessary information to Nepali workers. But the onus is now on the Nepal government to permit the Kuwaiti charter flights to Kathmandu, and to arrange for proper quarantine space and transport back to the districts for the several thousand Nepalis who may soon be returning from Kuwait and other Gulf countries. The flights for the returnees will also need special permission because Nepal’s lockdown and a ban on all international and domestic flights has been extended till 15 May.