Nepal’s main export item has historically been human labour. Subsistence farmers have been moving out to India in search of jobs. The first overseas Nepali migrants were workers recruited by the British in India for their sugarcane plantations from Fiji to Trinidad. And, of course, Nepalis still enlist in the British and Indian militaries.
But it is the particular failure of governance in post-1990 Nepal that actively promoted overseas migration as an industry. Throughout the UML-NC polarisation in the early 1990s, during the decade-long conflict and the unstable politics since 2006, the state encouraged migration as a safety-valve to cover up its own incompetence in creating the right environment for investment so jobs could be created at home.
The political leaders of the past 30 years, whose failures forced Nepalis to migrate to the Gulf, Malaysia and other countries in ever-larger numbers, are still with us today as the global pandemic wrecks economies. These rulers now have to bear the responsibility of bringing home in an orderly and safe manner Nepalis who want to return. After all, they have been at the frontlines sustaining this country’s remittance-based economy.
Repatriation is going to be an enormous challenge. The government’s own estimate is that 130,000 Nepalis need to be brought home right away because of loss of jobs due to economic slowdown in host countries. This does not include the tens of thousands in India who are trying to return to Nepal on foot, but are stuck at the border.
The government is said to be working on a return strategy, which is commendable. But it begs the question: what was it doing for the past two months? Other labour exporting countries in the region have already started bringing back their stranded workers in phases. Learning from how we have bungled the arrival of Nepalis at the land border from India, the first strategy should be fool-proof coordination between various government agencies, and between the central and local governments.
Nepal’s embassies in India, the Gulf countries and Malaysia have a critical role in collecting data on workers who need to get home, help those who need emergency assistance, work with governments of host countries and overseas Nepali groups on logistical arrangements. Some workers will have their tickets home paid as per contracts, undocumented Nepalis and others will not be able to afford repatriation flights.
Some embassies have already started preparations, now they need to liaise with Kathmandu in the selection criteria of countries and workers to send home first. In Kuwait, 3,500 Nepalis are already housed in camps awaiting flights chartered by the Kuwait government. In the UAE, the Nepal Embassy is helping Nepalis who have been laid off with food packages while they wait.
The airlift is going to need tremendous coordination and even with multiple daily flights will have to be staggered over months. Then there is the issue of what to do with the workers when they get to Kathmandu airport. There have to be medical tests before boarding because India and Pakistan have had cases where arriving workers tested positive.
Quarantine facilities will fill up fast, so there has to be an orderly process for safe self-isolation. Experience from the Indian border shows that returnees will escape unhygenic and dangerous quarantines. On arrival screening would be mandatory, and workers sent to pre-mapped quarantine facilities in Kathmandu and in home districts. For this, there has to be a bus fleet on standby for the enormous numbers being moved.
The districts with the highest volume of outmigration are in Province 2, and it is likely that is where most returnees will be going back to. Provincial governments and municipalities will need help with preparation. All this means an enormous amount of PCR testing kits to be made available in Kathmandu as well as in the districts, since each returnee will need multiple tests, including before being allowed home from quarantine.
All levels of government need to have pre-arrival information and communication strategy in place – especially to combat stigma so workers do not face the social ostracisation they are currently exposed to. Politicians could be forced by nationalistic arguments into an ill-prepared knee-jerk repatriation. This may be politically incorrect to say, but many workers who still have jobs or who are being taken care of by employers are probably better off where they are for now.
The government needs to focus on confronting the practical challenges of this massive undertaking, plan well. Then there will be the longer-term crisis of rehabilitating returnees so they can make a decent living in Nepal. Besides test, test, test, government agencies now need to coordinate, coordinate, coordinate.