There are tens of thousands of Nepalis in India, the Gulf region and elsewhere who have been laid off, whose resident permits have expired, or are stranded, who want to come home. Many are on unpaid leave, or they are working in essential services with higher chances of exposure, and at greater risk of being infected.
Others just want to be home with family, and do not want to continue living in crowded worker dormitories that are breeding grounds for infections. As the lockdowns and global economic downturn continue, the pressure will grow from destination countries on Nepal and other South Asian nations, to repatriate their nationals.
On Sunday, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) warned it would punish countries that refused to take home workers wishing to go home by suspending bilateral labour agreements. Saudi Arabia is sending back Ethiopians by the planeloads. Kuwait has threatened to deport thousands of undocumented workers from Bangladesh. The United Nations warned that the planned deportation of 200,000 Ethiopians from Saudi Arabia risks spreading the epidemic in that African country, while human rights groups have condemned the move.
These could all be signs of things to come. Like other South Asian countries, Nepal is woefully unprepared to take back so many workers immediately because of limited quarantine facilities. The logistics are near-impossible. Even if only 10% of the 1.5 million Nepali workers in the Gulf region wanted to come home, it would take six months to fly them all back, even if there were two daily widebody flights.
The number of infected people in the Gulf, Malaysia and India are increasing, and many of them are foreign workers. With their health infrastructure starting to be overwhelmed, there will be increasing pressure on destination country governments to send workers back to South Asia.
This is not just Nepal’s problem, our neighbours are all scrambling to increase quarantine facilities to accommodate returnees. Aside from the moral and ethical question that the deportations could raise, they also risk turning what is still a health crisis into a humanitarian disaster.
Countries that have benefited from the cheap labour are casting them away as disposables at a time when they know the situation in South Asia. It exposes a blatant lack of humanity and extreme selfishness to send workers home knowing very well the limited medical capacity of the sending countries.
The role of Nepal’s embassies in the Gulf, Malaysia and Maldives is critical during this emergency. There are many countries with substantial Nepali migration populations without missions, but even where there are resident embassies, Nepali workers have accused them of being apathetic during this crisis.
Regardless of whether Nepali workers are being forced to go back, or they are returning of their own free will, the preparedness to transport and quarantine the influx is inadequate. Even if all hotel rooms in Kathmandu are requisitioned for quarantine, it would not be enough to isolate workers. Not having a plan in place to accommodate those coming back is a colossal oversight.
To be sure, the logistics are going to be a sheer nightmare: the workers all need to be COVID-19 free, the most vulnerable migrants should not be asked to pay for flights back, who is going to pay for the rest, which countries to take workers back from first? It would also be unjust to fly back Nepalis from the Gulf, but stop Nepali workers from India at the border.
Even after the thousands upon thousands of Nepali workers land in Kathmandu, how are we going to get them back to their homes, mainly in Provinces 1 and 2? There needs to be adequate quarantine preparation especially in high migrant districts. Given previous cases of imports of COVID-19, there is already a stigma associated with returnees, and social ostracisation will be a huge problem.
Not having a strategy to deal with this ticking time bomb will mean that it can go off at any moment. There are enough indications that sooner or later, there will be an influx of returning workers. Every minute wasted is opportunity lost.
The government has often described Nepali migrant workers abroad as ‘true heroes’ for sending money home that props up the economy. It is time we treated them like the heroes they are. They are Nepal’s real Commercially Important People, not the tax-dodging tycoons.