Nepali migrants again caught up in 2nd wave

The numbers needing urgent help are not as high as last year

Nepalis boarding a repatriation flight in Dubai last year. Photo: ISHWOR THAPALIYA

Ram was a security guard in Malaysia until his contract expired in April. His employer wanted to renew it, but he declined because of frequent wage-deductions, payment irregularities and mistreatment. 

A hiring freeze in Malaysia since last year means employers use various tactics to keep foreign workers despite their unwillingness to do so. But Nepalis whose work visas have expired are stuck, since both Nepal and Malaysia are in complete lockdown and flights cancelled. 

“They dragged on the process hoping I would eventually decide to stay like other Nepali colleagues, but I ended up overstaying my visa. Now, I am not sure when I can fly back, and am running out of savings,” Ram told us on the phone. 

Daily new cases in Malaysia crossed 9,000 this week, and so far, 2,800 people have died of Covid-19. The government has announced a total lockdown from 1-14 June, while in Nepal the lockdown is in effect at least till 4 June.

Although the numbers are not as high as last year, this is reminiscent of the experience of hundreds of thousands of Nepali migrants who were stuck in the Gulf, Malaysia and elsewhere in 2020 waiting for emergency repatriation flights.

“The pressure is much lower compared to the first wave, but many are still facing difficulties,” says Deepak Dhakal, Labor Counsellor at the Nepal Embassy in Malaysia, explaining that it is especially painful for those with personal emergencies with family members who have died of Covid-19 back home. “We have made requests to at least allow one flight per week so it would bring some respite to those in need,” Dhakal adds.

It is a similar situation in other countries, including Saudi Arabia, where Nepali workers who already had exit permits are stranded without employer support--even though the number of people needing assistance is not as high as last year.

“The volume of daily calls asking about flights or support has dropped from hundreds to 15-20 this time around,” says Labour Attaché Prem Upadhaya at the Nepal Consulate in Jeddah. “Nepalis are also more cautious in decision-making, and are wary of the current situation in Nepal. Many opt to stay on and work, but for those set to return, a weekly flight would have helped.”

Embassies also want flights to transport bodies of Nepali workers who have died to Nepal. There are 33 bodies in Malaysia and seven in Saudi Arabia waiting to be flown back.  

There are also many workers stranded in Nepal, either due to Nepal’s flight ban or because Nepalis have not been allowed to fly to Malaysia, UAE and South Korea because of the second wave. Some 25-30,000 Nepalis who had completed their paperwork cannot fly, and an unknown number on vacation in Nepal are unable to rejoin jobs abroad. 

 “The government’s decision to allow flights from 1 June to Qatar, Turkey and China in addition to the uninterrupted flights to Delhi will provide some respite to the stranded migrants,” says Sujit Shrestha of the NAFEA (Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies). There are said to be over 117,000 pending offers for new  jobs for Nepalis, mostly from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Apart from the déjà vu of the first wave when Nepalis overseas needed repatriation help, this year many are pooling their resources to help Nepal with oxygen cylinders, medical equipment and cash donations.

“We are mobilising support from each country in the Asia-Pacific region to establish one oxygen plant in each Province,” says Hari Bhattarai of the Non-Resident Nepalese Association (NRNA) Malaysia. “We know that Nepal’s needs go beyond oxygen scarcity, so we are also working with the embassy to send test kits and PPEs and hope for a Nepal government charter flight to be sent to Malaysia in mid-June.” 

In Doha, the Nepali Business Association Qatar with the Nepal Embassy has formed a Covid-19 Crisis Relief and Support Group which has already raised over Rs10 million to procure 14 ventilators, 50 oxygen concentrators and 3,000 pulse oxymeters.

All this support comes on top of the remittances that workers overseas send home, which is keeping the economy afloat. In the past nine months of this fiscal year, total transfers to Nepal defied predictions and rose to Rs730 billion—a 16.5% increase compared to the same period last year. 

Nepal’s new budget announced on Saturday has increased by 1% the interest rate on remittances transferred through formal channels to banks in Nepal, and facilitated phone-based transfers during the pandemic. 

“We are also preparing voting rights for migrant workers, and making Nepal’s missions abroad a lot more active by assigning clearer roles and responsibilities in ensuring safe migration and decent employment,” says Ram Prasad Ghimire, Joint Secretary at the Economic Policy Analysis Division of the Ministry of Finance. 

The budget also continues last year’s support for soft loans and skills-based training to returnees, and issuing foreign employment savings bonds for migrants. However, the real test lies in the implementation of these programs

“There are lessons to learn from previous years which will be critical to inform implementation,” Ghimire admits. “For example, we have learnt that unless banks find business proposals submitted by migrants credible, the soft loan program targeting returnees will not succeed. We also need to make returnees more aware of the programs we have in place to help them.”

The initiatives also need to better address migrant workers’ concerns like quarantine, testing and vaccinations. The decision to migrate despite the uncertainty and the health risks amid a pandemic demonstrates that the lives-versus-livelihood tradeoff also extends overseas. Proactive diplomacy is needed to ensure that deployment decisions are not rash and address the vulnerabilities and risks during the pandemic.

There is also the question of the cost of quarantines for workers in host countries. Saudi Arabia recently mandated a 7-day institutional quarantine followed by testing. In response, Bangladesh announced that the government would help share costs by providing migrants up to TK25,000 ($295) from its Migrant Welfare Fund to cover the quarantine costs.  

The Philippines, on the other hand, temporarily banned deployment of its workers to Saudi Arabia after confusion regarding who would pay for the costs of quarantine and testing of its citizens. The ban was lifted after receiving assurance from the Saudi Government that all costs would be borne by the employer.

Nepal, on paper, has required as part of labor approval for employers to commit to bearing the quarantine costs but has no mechanism to follow up on its implementation. Diplomatic efforts to ensure minimum financial burden on Nepalis without compromising their health and safety as part of deployment in the new  Covid-19 context is necessary. 

Access to vaccines also needs to be closely watched. The pandemic has exposed the global inequity in vaccine distribution, and within countries select groups such as undocumented migrants could fall through the cracks.

Qatar, for example, has already double vaccinated 50% of its local and foreign residents above 16. But Qatar-based doctor Nitesh Aryal points out that to register online for vaccination residents need valid Residence Cards, which means those without them will need support to ensure full inclusion.

Some undocumented workers may themselves be hesitant to show up for vaccines or testing despite government assurances that their will get their jabs despite immigration status, especially in countries like Malaysia which have cracked down on undocumented workers during the lockdown.

Upasana Khadka