As repatriation flights pick up, homecoming is laced with hardships for Nepali migrant workers

Kalim Miya had paid $3,450 for a driving job in the UAE, but was paid less than a third of the $400 a month he was promised

Jun 25, 2020

Kathmandu: Kalim Miya had paid $3,450 for a driving job in the UAE, but was paid less than a third of the $400 a month he was promised. He and colleagues similarly cheated resigned, and stranded by the lockdown, took to social media against the employer, the recruiter and the Nepal Embassy, demanding food, lodging and repatriation.

A live video that Miya posted showing how they were not included in the first repatriation flight to Kathmandu last week despite languishing in UAE for months, has been viewed over 450,000 times.

The Embassy in Abu Dhabi had given it in writing to Miya that he and his group would be among the first on the first plane out. The Embassy eventually did come through and coordinated with the recruiting agency in Nepal, which paid for the ticket home.

Miya is finally back in Nepal along with 6,000 other Nepalis repatriated since 15 June mainly from the Gulf and Malaysia. He says: “It was bittersweet to leave behind seven of my friends with whom I had shared my struggle for the last few months. I will continue to raise my voice on their behalf till they come home.”

Miya and his friends were taking a risk by going publicly to social media to demand their rights. There are thousands of others who cannot afford the inflated ticket prices, or PCR tests and are coping quietly.  
Kalim Miya (standing left) and his friends finally en route to Nepal after being stranded in the UAE due to the flight ban. Photo: Kalim Miya
Purna was on the priority list of the Nepal Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, but that has not made a difference because he cannot afford the air fare anyway. After a Supreme Court verdict last week, the Nepal government is finalising a directive to bear the cost of the most desperate workers using funds from the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund.

Purna is cautiously optimistic: “I am hopeful, but not depending on it.”

When the airlift started on 15 June, many of the initial scheduled flights had to be cancelled because of confusion over the government’s directive that all passengers needed PCR of RDT negative test certificates before boarding. Returnees from Malaysia, Bahrain and Oman had tests, whereas those from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait took the more unreliable RDT. Those with PCR were allowed to go to home quarantine on arrival, but the RDT passengers were made to undergo facility based quarantine in Kathmandu.

Manish who worked at a market in Muscat had a ticket to Kathmandu for 18 June, and was excited about finally returning. But he was shocked to find that he, along with 20 other passengers, were positive, and could not get on the flight. “I had lost my sense of smell, but had no other symptoms,” said Manish, who is disappointed but also glad he was detected early. “It is not just about me, it is about those I would have traveled with or my family members.”

Nine of the women who returned from Kuwait last week also tested positive on arrival in Kathmandu, even though they had tested negative in Kuwait. Workers stuck in the Maldives had to just undergo thermal tests before boarding, and had to sign a pledge to go into facility quarantine in Nepal.

Ganesh is among the 720 Nepalis stranded in the Maldives, who has spent a week in a hotel in Kathmandu after arrival, but is still waiting for his PCR test. “We are staying in an overpriced hotel with sub-standard facilities,” says Ganesh who is bearing the cost of the hotel and is unsure when this turn for testing will come.  

But those in hotels realise they are luckier than those in government facilities in their hometowns. Returnees have to pay the bus fare to take them back to home districts, and the journeys last four times longer because drivers try to fit in as many passengers a possible from different districts in the same province.

“We have nausea, hunger, and they are stingy about toilet breaks,” complained Rama, a Kuwait returnee, “they treat us like animals that they just need to cram in the bus.”

Rita from Morang is pregnant, and was among the undocumented workers in Kuwait who took up the government’s offer of amnesty and a free flight home. After hearing horror stories of earlier returnees who took three days to reach Morang from Kathmandu, she opted for the more expensive hotel option in Kathmandu.

Once they they get to home districts, returnees like Kalim Miya from Gorkha spend two weeks in a quarantine centre. But he is lucky it is a well-managed facility, and it helps that his home is close by and he gets to see his children from a distance.

Nepalis lining up to board the flight at Dubai airport. Photo: Ishwor Thapaliya
As repatriation flights pick up, there are lessons to be learnt about treating returnees in a more humane way, especially the sick or pregnant women, or mothers with children, and those who cannot even afford bus tickets home from Kathmandu.

Some Nepalis who had signed up to return are dissuaded after hearing of the cost and hardships of those who preceded them to Nepal. Others have decided to stay put because of the resumption of jobs as the lockdowns are partially lifted in the Gulf nations.

Ganesh in Qatar says there are many Nepalis who have tested positive, but are also quite a few who have recovered, including his own roommates. “I am not as afraid of coronavirus as I used to be, and since my work has resumed, I have decided against coming home immediately,” he told us over the phone.

The Nepal government says it is working on a guideline for students and workers who now want to travel overseas. While this move is welcomed by Nepalis on vacation stranded by the lockdown who wanted to travel back on repatriation flights to resume ongoing jobs, the decision seems premature – especially for new workers.

The preparations to restart sending workers out needs to be coordinated with the host country on new protocols employers need to follow to be eligible to hire Nepalis, upgrades in the pre-departure health and orientation of outgoing workers in the new context, and ensuring that Nepal’s embassies have the bandwidth to manage recruitment at a time when they are overwhelmed with repatriation.

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