Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was worry in Nepal that migrant workers were over-concentrated in just a handful of countries.
Nepal’s remittance-based economy has been threatened before by crises like the oil price crash of 2014, the completion of FIFA construction projects in Qatar, the nationalisation policies of the Gulf, the Saudi-UAE blockade of Qatar, or the threat of confrontation between the US and Iran on the Strait of Hormuz.
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Nepal needed to diversify employment with new opportunities within the country, and develop newer destinations like Japan and Europe which are facing worker shortages due to ageing populations. Even before the coronavirus crisis, Nepal had signed agreements with Japan and Mauritius to lessen the dependence on the Gulf region.
But COVID-19 pandemic has hit the economies of Nepal as well as potential destination countries. The World Bank estimates that remittances in Nepal will dip by 14% in 2020. Many workers stranded abroad have lost their jobs, others are undocumented and some are just scared because of crowded dormitories where they cannot practice physical distancing.
There have been calls to bring the workers home. But that is not as easy as it sounds because of the numbers involved, and ease of spread of the virus. To bring a worker who is based in Sharjah to Dhanusha, for instance, will entail coordination on an unprecedented scale. And there is not even reliable data on how many workers, especially undocumented ones, are abroad.
Selecting the most vulnerable is a massive exercise on its own. There are a few countries with residential Nepali missions, and their staffing is not proportionate to the volume of workers.
It was not easy to evacuate foreigners from Nepal in the past month of the lockdown, but scale was not a problem for the Kathmandu-based embassies. Nepali workers need to be brought home, but the operational aspects of this massive undertaking would be a monumental challenge even for strong and well-endowed governments.
Countries in the region are scrambling, but their evacuation numbers are a drop in the bucket compared to the total numbers of their workers. The Philippines has repatriated just 16,911 of its workers of whom over 13,000 were working on cruise ships.
In India, a petition seeking the evacuation of migrant workers was shot down by the Supreme Court given practical difficulties. Since last week, Pakistan has started repatriating workers after pressure from the UAE, but the numbers are small compared to the 40,000 who have registered to return.
The Nepal Embassy in Qatar this week started an online registration of migrant workers and other embassies need to follow. The mapping of potential quarantine facilities in Nepal should begin. Kerala, for example, has prepared quarantine facilities for 250,000 returnees. Countries like Philippines and Pakistan have also designated quarantine space for returnees in unused hotels or government facilities.
In all this, there is a need to communicate. Migrants are glued to social media now more than ever, and this is a useful channel. There needs to be a public address targeted just to those living abroad, many in difficult situations. Embassy hotlines are not always received, or helpful.
The Nepali Embassy in Malaysia has a good example of a weekly live program, where individuals can ask questions and clear confusions which is viewed by hundreds of thousands of workers
But most importantly during this pandemic, there is a need to ensure that workers at least have access to basic food, accommodation and health services. Even if flights were to restart right away, it would take many months to bring back just the ones who want to return.
The numbers requiring support, and in desperate need to come home, will grow the longer the lockdown drags on. Planning for repatriation has to go hand in hand with ensuring they have access the basics where they are.
Geography should not matter in sending money and support to Nepalis abroad, just as it is easy to receive the billions they remit annually. A portion of the Prime Minister’s COVID-19 fund as well as the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund should be directed to ensuring they have adequate supplies until they can come home.
The Philippine government is providing $200 cash support to displaced migrants abroad. Indonesia and Bangladesh have sent in-kind support to migrants in Malaysia and Maldives respectively. Destination countries like Qatar and UAE themselves also have food drives for migrant workers.
There are challenges for Nepal’s embassies abroad. How does the Kuala Lumpur based mission ensure that a worker in Johor Bahru is taken care of? There are thousands of Nepalis in the Maldives with tourism-related jobs, but Nepal does not have a resident embassy in Male.
Mobilising overseas Nepali organisations to help compatriots abroad is more important than ever before, especially in cities further away from the capital. Appointing a corps of trusted Nepali volunteers from each city, publishing contact details online, orienting and assigning them with coordination and distribution tasks will allow Nepalis to take care of fellow-Nepalis through this emergency.