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Government underestimates number of workers awaiting repatriation, say experts

While officials say 25,000 will be brought home in the first phase, the plan will leave behind a majority of Nepalis whose conditions are worsening due to the Covid-19 pandemic

Chandan Kumar Mandal
The Kathmandu Post
5 June 2020

The government’s plan to repatriate citizens from Covid-19-affected countries has finally gained momentum after it finalised the protocol to manage returnees after they land in Nepal.

Although the government finally decided to bring Nepalis home two months after the suspension of international flights, authorities have underestimated the number of people in need of immediate repatriation, labour and migration experts say. They warn that the plan will leave behind a majority of Nepalis, living in dire conditions and waiting to return home for months.

“There’s a vast difference between the number of Nepalis, including migrant workers, wanting to return home and the figures the government is looking at,” said Rameshwar Nepal, a labour migration researcher and South Asia Director at Equidem Research, a UK-based human rights research organisation. “The government estimate is not even close to what several other estimations have shown.”

As part of the repatriation plan, approved by the High-level Coordination Committee for Prevention and Control of Covid-19 on Sunday, 26 Nepalis returned home from Myanmar on Friday. The first batch of Nepali workers from the United Arab Emirates was also set to arrive in the evening.

The work-plan identified 17 categories of Nepalis, including students, government officials, and individuals abroad to meet their family members, to be prioritised during repatriation. In the case of migrant workers, the fate application to return home is to be decided based on their status and vulnerability.

Applications from workers stranded without food and a job or a work contract or visa are to be prioritised. Similarly, pregnant women, those dealing with health issues or have applied for general amnesty will also receive priory.

The government plans to repatriate 2,500-3,000 Nepalis every day once preparations at home are completed.

The government says that an estimated 25,000, most of them migrants working in Malaysia and the Gulf, need urgent repatriation and they are to be brought home in the first phase.

The government’s figures contradict numbers by another of its agencies, the Foreign Employment Board, which is responsible for the welfare of migrant workers. The board had earlier said that 127,000 Nepali migrant workers are expected to return home immediately while another 407,000 are expected to return in the long-run due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The government itself had earlier quoted a higher number of Nepali workers who should be brought home at the earliest,” said researcher Nepal. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs told a parliamentary committee that 227,000 should be brought home urgently, and 377,000 will return later,” said Nepal.

The board’s study said nearly 280,000 Nepalis have already lost their jobs since the pandemic began. These numbers only include those in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and Malaysia—the most popular destinations for Nepali labourers.

“A large number of Nepali workers have lost their job either because their contract was terminated or because their company shut due to the pandemic. We can imagine their condition in the coming weeks,” said Nepal.

Another study by the recruiting agencies said at least 500,000 Nepali migrant workers would return home soon. These numbers only include Nepali migrant workers. But the government plan to bring other Nepalis in problem means the number could go further up.

Another indication that the government has underestimated the number of Nepalis that want to return home comes from a rapid assessment by the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility (CESLAM).

“The finance minister had said the workers who have lost their jobs or are on expired visas will be repatriated as well,” said Jeevan Baniya, assistant director at CESLAM. According to Baniya, data from the last three years shows that on average, the job contract of 1,527 Nepali workers expires every day.

“CESLAM’s rapid assessment shows that the total number of labour permits expired between March 24, the day the lockdown began, and March 28, the day the government budget was presented, is around 87,000,” said Baniya.

“The number will go up with each passing day. Now the question is: Who will be given preference and what criteria would be followed?”

Similarly, the government’s method of collecting data on migrant workers in urgent need to return home has also been questioned. “The government’s final estimate seems to be compiled with information from its embassies that have been collecting details online,” said Nepal.

“We all know how many workers could have actually filled up those forms,” said Nepal. “The government estimate fails to reflect the reality. Some workers will return through the programme, but it will make it worse for others left behind, giving them psychological pain.” 

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