There was a collective, albeit cautious, sigh of relief in Nepal when overseas remittances defied prediction and did not decrease dramatically this fiscal year. However, rarely is the social cost of migration including mental health, given the attention it deserves.
Of the 801 migrant deaths in 2018, 132 were suicides. In 2019, 730 Nepali overseas migrants died abroad, and of them 111 were suicides. These figures may be even more shocking if Nepali migrants in India are included.
There has not been enough effort to address the drivers of suicides among migrant workers, or access to mental health care that could have prevented them. We celebrate remittances and the resilience of workers abroad during the worst crises, but do not give those who shed blood, sweat and tears the attention they deserve.
Deaths, however, are extreme cases. Countless cases of returnees coming home after facing unfavourable experiences go unnoticed, perhaps because of their scattered, isolated nature. The ramifications last for a long time, even after return.
Santosh Sapkota was beaten up while working as a security guard in Malaysia, and three years later is still on medication for psychological trauma. His story went viral on social media, but thousands of such stories go unnoticed. The trauma lasts a long time, even after return to Nepal. Sapkota has been suffering silently, until the viral video acted as a trigger and made him come out with his experience.
Now, with signs that the Covid-19 crisis will be protracted and affect migrants en masse, their emotional and mental health should be an urgent policy priority for the state. In addition to concerns about the health and economy, uncertainty about the ability to return home has caused much psychological discomfort.
Exposure to the virus is also constant fear among migrants. Physical distancing was never an option in the cramped living quarters. One Nepali working in a Malaysian glove factory that meets the global demand for personal protective equipment during the pandemic says he has stayed in his dormitories for months. But there are other local workers who commute, and there is fear of exposure. Those working in ‘essential services’ like security guards, retail workers, airport handlers and food deliverers are often in close proximity to others.
But compared to the earlier days, migrants report that their perception of the virus has evolved. Hari, who works in Qatar says, “Initially, we thought Covid meant certain death, and that Nepal was somehow cushioned from the virus. When two of my roommates tested positive, my world came crashing down. We had been cooking and eating together. I remember the fear before and after I got myself tested when my Ehteraz app had a yellow signal as I waited for my results. When I finally saw the green in the app indicating negative results, it was a huge relief. I am now less scared of Covid because I have closely watched my friends recover.”
Anxiety is especially high among migrants who want to return but have not been able to. The Government’s flip-flopping regarding who, when and how many get to come home and the related protocols adds to the stress.
Says a Nepali worker in UAE who tested positive: “At such times you realise no one is really there for you. Not the embassy. Not the Nepali community groups. Not your employer.”