The migration sector is a zoom lens through which we can examine up close Nepal’s socio-economic and political problems through recent history.
To a greater or lesser degree, all Nepalis suffer from the country’s chronic malaise: discrimination, exclusion, poverty, indebtedness, joblessness, poor health care and education, all a result of an uncaring state.
But it is when citizens decide it is too much trouble to remain, or risk it all to leave their families and birthplace for a better shot at life, that the true impact of leadership failure and government neglect is thrown into sharp focus.
The government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic since February 2020 is a case in point: it has cost lives at home, and magnified the misery of Nepali workers overseas.
To be sure, most governments around the world have mismanaged the pandemic. But that is no excuse.
There were four labour ministers in the past two years, but they were all AWOL. And the situation now is no different, when there is no labour minister. The government was slow to respond last year to repatriate Nepali workers stuck in the Gulf and Malaysia. The flights did happen, but too little, too late, and too expensive. Compensation schemes were not properly implemented.
As recovery from the second wave stalls, and ICUs fill up again, the new government has appointed a private hospital operator as state minister of health. We will give him the benefit of doubt for now: who knows, he may have the mojo to do a better job than his predecessors.
But this week, thousands of migrant workers had to wait all night at Teku Hospital just for a rubber stamped piece of paper to certify they have been vaccinated. Some were in line for 28 hours for a letter that may not even be valid for travel because it does not have a QR code.
This is just the latest demonstration of the appalling neglect of desperate migrants by the health and labour bureaucracy. Instead of making it as convenient as possible for them, state actors treat them with apathy, flip-flopping rules, and add yet another layer of hardship to an already complex recruitment process with workers victims to cheating, high fees and false promises.
The process entails visiting different offices, standing in line, being treated with lack of respect and dignity by the authorities and ripped off by ‘manpower’ agents.