After banning all flights to Nepal on 22 March to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Nepal allowed the first two flights on Friday to bring home stranded nationals from Burma and UAE. However, the first returnees were not on the government’s priority list and this has raised questions on who gets to decide who goes home first.
A Myanmar Air Force Fokker F-28 that was flying to Kathmandu to repatriated 43 stranded Burmese nationals flew in with 26 Nepalis from Naypyitaw on Friday morning.
Nepal readies holding centres for first returnee flights
On-way ticket for overseas Nepali workers, Upasana Khadka
The second is a chartered Air Arabia Airbus 320 from Sharjah that is bringing back 168 Nepalis being sent home after being laid off in the UAE, as well as the body of a dead Nepali worker being flown home to Ilam for cremation.
However, in both cases it is not clear who got to decide why they got a priority to return home first when other desperate stranded workers in the Gulf and elsewhere, who could not afford tickets and quarantine, are still waiting. It is understood that the 26 Nepalis from Naypyitaw were flown back by the Burmese government.
Nevertheless, Friday’s arrival will be a rehearsal for the government’s new protocol for testing, transport to holding centres and travel back to home districts for returnees who will start coming back at the rate of 1,000 per day from next week.
The Kathmandu airlift, Editorial
About 20 holding centres have been set up in Kathmandu for returning Nepalis and are designated province-wise. The passengers will stay there for 2-3 days awaiting results of their PCR tests, and will then be taken by bus to their home province for further quarantine and self-isolation.
Nepal embassies in the Gulf and Malaysia had been putting together a list of those who needed to get back with a priority for undocumented workers granted amnesty, pregnant women and the disabled, and those laid off. The government was also asking those whose return fares were not being paid by employers to bear their own cost of travel.
Since March, more than 6,000 foreigners stranded in Nepal have been flown back and Friday’s 194 passengers were some of the first Nepalis to fly back, except for a handful of emergency cases before this.
Commercially Important People, Editorial
Friday’s returnees also appear to have flouted the government’s own rule that returnees should all have certificates that they are coronavirus free before being allowed to board. None of those who returned from Burma and UAE have been PCR tested before arriving in Nepal.
The Nepal Embassy in UAE has a list of nearly 18,000 Nepali workers who have signed up to be flown home, and the UAE government has said it will bear the cost of flying those who cannot buy their own tickets home. However, the first returnees were not those on the priority list prepared by the embassy, but were selected by two security companies which had chartered the plane.
The flight was uncertain till the last moment because of doubts about whether the quarantine facilities in Kathmandu were ready, and also because Nepal insisted that they return on a Nepal Airlines flight.
Among those still stranded in UAE are those who have been laid off, and who do not even have money to pay for their own fares. One of them said on the phone from Dubai: “Our only consolation is that at least some of our brothers and sisters got to go home.”
It is also unclear why the 3,500 undocumented Nepali workers in Kuwait who got amnesty and have been waiting in a Kuwait government shelter for the past month for their flights back were not the first passengers to return. The Kuwait government is paying for their flights home.