Overseas contract workers from Nepal tend to have a high threshold for risk because of the relatively better earning prospects and lack of alternatives back home.
Aspirants are often aware of the common risks to be wary of in overseas employment because of the networks of former or present migrant workers, the social web, and reports in the press.
Despite this, many continue to make risky decisions not always because of lack of information, but in spite of it. Mahesh, a seasoned diaspora leader in Qatar who has watched migrants flourish and has himself rescued many from inhumane conditions that bore resemblance to modern-day slavery, attributes this to the culturally fatalistic view that migration is a lottery.
Sharmila agreed with her agent to go to Kuwait via India despite a Nepal government ban on female workers going to that country. “How else would I travel?” she asked, admitting that she knew her journey was full of pitfalls.
Her agent ensured that Sharmila was well-versed on the do’s and don’ts while crossing borders to avoid getting caught: “Only carry a handbag.” “Don’t make eye contact with anyone.” “If stopped, say you are visiting family.”
If she only made it to Kuwait, she would be able to provide for her children. Sharmila’s journey took 24 days from Nepal to New Delhi to Sri Lanka to Dubai, and when she got to Kuwait, realised her employer was abusive. She had no option but to escape and return to Nepal, distraught and without savings.
When Ramesh agreed to go on a visit visa to UAE, he knew he was taking a chance by paying Rs250,000 to his agent. He knew he was being overcharged, but there was that slim chance that he could achieve his dream of getting a well-paying job.
However, not only did his agent fail to find him a job but was verbally and physically abusive. Ramesh’s only memory of Dubai is the nearly three months he spent crammed inside an apartment with 22 other migrants.
Shama is 24 and looks 16. She covers her face and laughs, showing the first page of her passport with a falsified, legal age of 32. She couldn’t make it past immigration in Dubai and was sent back to Kathmandu via Tribhuvan Airport which she had initially avoided by travelling through India due to the ban. Shama believed her agent who lived above her room in her village because she had already successfully sent two others to Kuwait.
Nepali workers are taking risks even when they get to the destination country. Ram’s job in Malaysia had no overtime, so he switched to undocumented status to earn more money – knowing fully well he would be deported if caught. He was caught, spent six months in detention and was sent back.
He was among a group of other deported Nepalis at Kathmandu airport recently, all were empty handed, clad in t-shirts and flipflops, walking out with other Nepalis who were pushing baggage carts with heavy suitcases and tv monitors.
What makes workers like Ram, Shama, Sharmila and Ramesh take risks is the positive outcome for others. Unlike Ram, Kul earned $300 a month as a security guard, double of what he earned in his legal job at a furniture shop. Yet, he made it back safely with a temporary pass. The two women sent by Shama’s agents made it to Kuwait and have good employers who pay them well.
Current migration policies which fail to respond to migrants’ aspirations and ground realities, such as blanket bans on domestic workers, free visa free ticket policy, or the inability to legally switch jobs at the destination, all help make foreign employment more like a lottery than a pathway out of poverty. In such a policy environment, general awareness and orientation programs can therefore be rendered inadequate because many Nepalis are also knowingly taking ill advised steps. And when there are first-hand failed migration attempts of members of a community, other aspirants attribute it to ill luck or fate. Unperturbed, they repeat the same steps in the hope that in their case the odds will be in their favor.
Names have been changed