Repatriation is difficult because there is a huge discrepancy between those who want to come home and the limited numbers of flights available. The government has made guidelines on who gets to go first, it has developed an arrival protocol.
But there are already gaping holes in this plan Those who can pull strings have got on the first flights. The Nepal Airlines Airbus that came back on Tuesday night from Canberra with 11 passengers was mainly carrying government officials and families stranded in Australia.
The 3,500 Nepali undocumented workers in Kuwait and the 17,000 in UAE who were supposed to be on the priority list are following all this on social media and are outraged.
In such a huge undertaking, lapses were to be expected. Putting a scale to vulnerability will by definition be subjective, but why were not the embassies and the government in Kathmandu following their own criteria? This has created an impression of the government bungling systematic repatriation just like it has bungled everything else.
Another major flaw in the process is that the workers are required to bear the cost of tickets themselves. As our report shows, many have been stranded for over two months in camps, and exhausted all their savings on room and food, there is no way they can afford the inflated fares on chartered flights.
As one dejected Nepali worker in Dubai told our reporter over the phone after hearing of the Sharjah flight: “The only consolation I can take from this is that at least some Nepalis got to go home.” Pregnant women in UAE were assured by the embassy they were on the priority list, but now have to wait some more because two UAE security companies jumped the queue.
The other government rule required everyone to have a COVID-19 negative medical certificate before boarding. None of those who have arrived so far did these tests. And where are the stranded workers in Kuwait and UAE going to go now to get tested?
Nepali embassies abroad have stopped answering calls. They also seem to be over-ruled by uncoordinated decisions by ministries in Kathmandu. The COVID-19 repatriation challenge exposes all the chronic weaknesses in governance in Nepal and magnifies them: corruption, ad hocism, lack of coordination and communication, neglect of the weakest and poorest
The least the government can do now is communicate transparently about the flight schedules, who will be on them, how to get tickets at the designated price, support for those who cannot afford it, and not do any more hanky panky with passenger manifests. Returnees have been through a lot – they should not be given more hardship and grief when they arrive.
The crisis also provides an opportunity for the government to look at ways to provide employment at home for as many returnees as possible. But that is for later. First things first.