Pandemic Borders

Can Nepal cope with the return of migrant workers?

With thousands of Nepali migrant workers forced to return home because of COVID-19, the country is facing serious challenges.

Richa Shivakoti
29 July 2020
A Nepalese worker arrive at the Tribhuvan International Airport from Kuwait amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Kathmandu, Nepal on 11 June 2020
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Picture by Narayan Maharjan/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved
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COVID-19 is forcing an unprecedented level of reverse migration of Nepali migrant workers from around the world. The underlining problems related to the dependence on temporary labor migration and remittances is being revealed as the government grapples with immense short and long-term challenges.

Nepali migrant workers have played a vital role in keeping the national economy afloat during times of political instability and conflict as the remittances they send become an essential source of income. Nepal is the fifth-most remittance-dependent economy (in terms of equivalence to GDP) in the world with remittances accounting for 28% of the GDP in 2018 and this pandemic will directly hit this source.

A remittance-based economy has its pitfalls as it is dependent on various local and global issues such as xenophobia, the economy, price of oil, geopolitical tensions and now a global pandemic. COVID-19 is likely to induce a long and pervasive global economic crisis, which will have disastrous consequences for low-paid migrant workers and the welfare of their families, as their source of income dries up.

The World Bank projects a 20% decline in remittances globally. The targeted growth rate for Nepal has been revised from 8.5% to slow down to 1.5-2.8% for 2020 because of COVID-19. Other impacts will include decreasing foreign exchange earnings for the country, a halt in the tourism industry, increased inequality, and an influx of unemployed migrant workers. The Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (private recruitment agencies) estimates 20-25% of the current Nepali workers abroad to likely return home due to the pandemic.

For Nepali labour migrants, the social and human costs of migration have always been high with reports of 3-4 dead bodies of migrant workers arriving daily. The current global pandemic is magnifying the health and safety risks. There are reports of workers being unemployed, unpaid, and at the mercy of the employers, resulting in them living off their meager savings. The cramped and unsanitary living conditions in the dorms have also come into the limelight as they have proved to be fertile ground for the disease as seen in Singapore and some Gulf states.

The Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies estimates 20-25% of the current Nepali workers abroad to likely return home due to the pandemic

Several destination countries have started offloading foreign workers at this critical time. Amnesty International reported that Qatari authorities detained dozens of Nepali migrant workers in March telling them they were being held for coronavirus tests before deporting them to Nepal. Kuwait is providing amnesty to undocumented workers and will sponsor their tickets back home and waive overstay fines. The United Arab Emirates recently warned of the imposition of strict future restrictions on recruitment of workers from mainly South Asian countries that refuse to take back their nationals. They are also considering suspending signed memoranda of understanding.

As fears of the pandemic grew, the Nepal government announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24 to curb the spread of COVID-19. The government recently announced its decision to lift the nationwide lockdown from July 21, with the resumption of domestic and international flights from August 17. By July 27, there were 18,613 confirmed coronavirus cases and 45 deaths in Nepal.

The two main avenues for returning Nepali migrants are either though the international airport in Kathmandu or via the open border between Nepal and India. The policies and support in place for these two groups have been considerably different so far.

Nepali migrant workers coming from India struggled to get back as India announced its own nationwide lockdown from March 25. Many walked hundreds of miles through the Indian lockdown and finally came to the border towns but were then denied entry to Nepal. The government belatedly (after two months) designated 20 border points to enter the country.

The inability to have suitable quarantine facilities for returning migrants also means that the virus is spreading to remote corners of the country

The government’s policy has been to transport them to their home districts, where they are expected to be quarantined in camps run by local authorities. However, municipal and provincial governments have been overwhelmed and state that they do not have the resources and personnel to create quarantine facilities according to the WHO standards.

For migrants returning via the airport, 20 holding centers have been set up in Kathmandu, after which they will be transported to their home province for further quarantine and self-isolation. Repatriation of Nepalese stranded abroad started from June 5 and the first phase expects to bring back 25,000 Nepalis with priority given to vulnerable groups. The government’s announcement that migrant workers wanting to return have to pay for their own tickets and for quarantine costs was criticized and challenged at court. The Supreme Court issued an interim order to the government to use the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund (a collective insurance program) to repatriate Nepali workers stranded abroad. In response, the government has finalized guidelines to repatriate stranded workers and will pay for the return tickets through the fund.

For an airborne disease that can rapidly spread in crowded and closed spaces, the long difficult journeys though different modes of transportation make migrants more vulnerable to it. The inability to have suitable quarantine facilities for returning migrants also means that the virus is spreading to remote corners of the country, which will have disastrous consequences for the rural countryside with poor health systems in place.

More needs to be done to support both short–term and long-term reintegration of migrants as Nepal and all destination countries are simultaneously affected by this pandemic and its rippling shocks.

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