UAE warning to send back workers, including Nepalis

The warning by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to punish countries that refuse to repatriate workers wishing to go home by suspending bilateral labour agreements could put a huge burden on the Nepal government.

Just in the past two years more than 122,000 workers have taken labour permits for the Emirates. There are an estimated 275,000 Nepali workers there, and even if ten percent of them wanted to return to Nepal because their work visas have expired or they are laid off, Nepal would have neither the flight or quarantine capacity to handle them.

The UAE Ministry of Human Resources warned on Sunday to impose ‘strict future restrictions on recruitment’ of workers from mainly South Asian countries that refused to take back their nationals who want to return.

A Ministry official was quoted by the Emirates News Agency (WAM) as saying: “The options include suspending the MoU signed between the ministry and concerned authorities in these countries, and setting strict restriction on recruitment of workers from those countries. Many countries have not responded to requests by their nationals to return home following the outbreak.”

Crossborder virus and Nepali migrant workers, Upasana Khadka

Nepali and Indian migrants watch a Bollywood movie inside their camp. Photo: PATTABI RAMAN

This trend is also being seen elsewhere. Countries like Kuwait and Maldives have asked the Bangladesh to take back its undocumented workers which could total to over 75,000 workers.

Diplomatic sources in Abu Dhabi were quoted as saying that the UAE government had sent a note verbale to all South Asian embassies about taking nationals who wanted to return home, adding that those who had tested positive would be treated in the Emirates itself.

“Nepal just does not have the quarantine and isolation capacity to handle so many returnees,” said one Nepali public health expert. “Besides, the question would arise why we are flying back workers from Dubai but not from Delhi.”

Lockdown limbo in no man's land, Deepak Kharel

Indeed, the coronavirus has revealed the morality and ethics of what could quickly become a humanitarian disaster for developing countries besides being a health pandemic. Workers from Nepal and other South Asian countries face a dilemma: they cannot go back to their own countries even if they want to, and if they stay they will be exposed to infections in the overcrowded camps.

However, the onus is mostly on the Nepal government to take care of its citizens. The first step would be to know exactly how many Nepalis are in the UAE, and how many of them want to return. There are no figures for that.

Nepalis quarantined in Qatar, Upasana Khadka

The Nepali Association (NRNA) in the UAE recently started collecting information on those who want to return. So far 4,240 respondents have replied among whom 15% are on visit visas and majority of the remaining are on resident (work) visas – of which 35% are on unpaid leave and 20% have had their resident visas cancelled. The Association’s Naresh Sen said that the survey was conducted after its written requests to the Nepal government did not yield any outcome.

There are 4 million Nepalis outside Nepal. Even if a tenth of them wanted to return home, the numbers are mind-boggling. Says Purna Chandra Bhattarai, former Secretary, “The biggest evacuation of foreign workers took place in 2011, from Libya, when we brought back 1,700 workers after the onset of the war there.”

Shared stories, shattered dreams of South Asian migrant workers, Sonia Awale

This is a problem of a scale. There have been nearly three weeks of lockdown to prepare, mobilise army/police to identify potential areas for quarantine and set up facilities, we are just not prepared to take back citizens who want to return home and in emerging cases like the UAE, are being forced to do so.

Ramesh stays positive

There are 11 Nepali who have tested positive for coronavirus in the UAE. One person has so far died while 4 have recovered.

One Nepali is Ramesh (name changed) worked right through the pandemic until he tested positive. The ten migrants in his room are being placed in a separate building: 8 in one room, Ramesh who tested positive in a single room and the other one in the hospital.

“I had fever and headache that made it feel like my head was going to explode. So they took a swab test and informed my employer that I tested positive after which I have been kept in a separate room,” said Ramesh, who still has not informed his family because of the panic that will ensue. The other Nepali in his with severe chest pains has been taken to hospital.

Why has zero-cost migration not happened?, Upasana Khadka

“I try to keep myself distracted. I don’t have wifi here so I play games on my phone and try to think positive because I don’t want the virus to win, I have to stay strong,” Ramesh said. “I don’t really have a hobby. I used to like writing poems but it has been years since I stopped. Maybe I should take it up again.”

Ramesh does not know how he got infected. It could be the canteen where there are hundreds of workers crowded together. Or it could be the room where there are ten others, and one room-mate tested positive. “I know about social distancing, but how could I do that here?” he asks.

Ramesh adds: “At times like this you realise no one is really there for you. Not the embassy. Not the Nepali community groups. Not your employer. Everyone is pointing only to the UAE government’s hotline number. I talk to them everyday and they take my details. My case is still mild and so they haven’t taken me to hospital. Some of my friends have been going out of their way to help with food. I owe them."

Ramesh who has tested positive for coronavirus in the UAE, wrote this poem during his COVID-19 isolation followed by its translation:  कयौ बर्ष अघि देखिजिन्दगी को गोरेटो माफगत एक्लै हिडिरहेथेतर,आज अचानककोहि साथ दिन्छु भन्दैछमलाइ संगै राख्छु भन्दैछतर म, जान चाहदिनकिनकीमलाइ जिन्दगी जिउनुपुगेकै छैन।तर अहंउ मान्दैन।म निरन्तर मनाउने कोशिश गरिरहेछुउ ठिङ उभिएर एकनास मलाई नियालिरहेछ।सायद उ पनि दोधार मा छ।तेसैले,मेरो आँखा मा खडकिरहेछ।आस्था को पनि एउटा परिधी हुदोरहेछ।बिश्वास को पनि एउटा सिमा हुदोरहेछ।तेसैले तेहि सिमा मा उभिएर उ मलाइ निरन्तर हेरिरहेछम उसलाई ।र एक अर्का लाई मनाउने कोशिश मैयहाँ जिन्दगी अघि बढी रहेछ।। For many yearsI was walking alone along this pathof life.  But, suddenly todaysomeone wants towalk with me,stay with me.But me,I don't want that becauseI haven't lived lifeto the full.But, no, the persondoesn't agree.I try persuasionbut the person just stands and stares at me.Maybe torn,like me.There is regretin my eyes.There is a limit to faith.From that boundarywe gaze at each other.This life goes onas we still try to persuadeeach other. Read also:

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