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Migrant Rights Activists Call for a Mechanism for Rescuing Stranded Workers
Chandan Kumar Mandal
The Kathmandu Post
27 May 2021
As thousands of Nepali workers remain stranded in various labour destination countries due to Covid-19 restrictions, migrant rights activists and experts have called for a permanent mechanism to rescue the workers.
After the Nepal government suspended international flights three weeks ago to stem the spread of Covid-19, the workers remain stuck in various countries. The suspension will remain in force until May 31, if not extended further.
“Having a rapid response mechanism can be instrumental in dealing with emergencies like the Covid-19 pandemic and even during normal times,” Shom Prasad Luitel, a lawyer with expertise on migrant workers’ rights, told the Post. “Such a rapid mechanism, however, is not a completely new concept. The Supreme Court had nearly three years ago ordered the government to set up such a mechanism. Now all that the government needs to do is implement the order.”
Responding to a petition filed by Luitel, the Supreme Court, on September 14, 2017, had ordered the government to set up a rapid response mechanism for helping stranded migrant workers in labour destination countries.
“The rescue and repatriation of migrants has so far remained an ad hoc effort marred by red-tapism. Whenever a rescue operation is needed, the authorities take too long to come up with a decision,” said Luitel. “There is a need for such a mechanism involving various stakeholders and backed by required resources and funds. During the first wave of the pandemic last year, we experienced chaos until the Supreme Court ordered the government to repatriate the migrant workers free of cost. If there was such a mechanism, things would have been easier.”
The government has so far not announced any plan to repatriate the workers.
Jeevan Baniya, another labour migration expert, also feels a permanent arrangement for rapid response is essential for a smooth rescue and repatriation operation during a crisis.
“The need for such a mechanism was felt when 12 Nepalis were abducted and killed in Iraq in 2004. However, even after all these years and a Supreme Court order, there is no such mechanism in place,” said Baniya, who is the Assistant Director of Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility at Social Science Baha, a think tank. “Such a mechanism is needed not only for rescuing migrant workers in labour destinations but others including students in various countries.”
As per the government’s estimates, in the Gulf region, there are nearly 400,000 Nepali workers in Qatar; 400,000 in Saudi Arabia; 200,000 in the United Arab Emirates; 70,000 in Kuwait; 25,000 in Bahrain; and 20,000 in Oman. And nearly 400,000 Nepalis are living and working in Malaysia.
According to Baniya, geopolitical tensions and conflicts are brewing in various labour destinations, so any wars or emergencies could necessitate massive evacuations.
“We must prepare ourselves for such situations, at least in the countries where Nepalis are in large numbers. We need to regularly assess the situation, but this aspect has been overlooked,” said Baniya. “Also, do we see such a mechanism merely as a formality? The Ministry of Foreign Ministry should be at the forefront and diplomatic missions should be proactive. Even last year, we noticed such confusion while responding to the massive repatriation challenge.”
According to stakeholders, the government should come forward for the rescue and repatriation of the stranded Nepali workers before the situation gets further complicated.
“If the Nepal government can send stranded Indian nationals back to India, then why is it not acting to repatriate its own citizens?,” said lawyer Luitel. “Many of those stranded might not have proper documents including exit permits or air tickets or their visas might have expired. The government must help them.”
Nepali migrant workers are seen pleading for help on social media pages of Nepali diplomatic missions, mainly in the Persian Gulf countries.
Weeks after suspending international flights, the government has just formed a task force, which has started collecting details of Nepalis abroad.
“From the discussions so far, it looks like the government wants to manage the stranded workers in the destination countries itself. But the problem looks serious in Malaysia, where many workers have been laid off,” said Baniya. “Although the situation may not get as worse as last year, further delay in rescuing the workers will mean the number of migrants with expired visas and willing to return home will pile up making the situation more difficult to handle.”