Over 400,000 Nepali migrant workers have lost their jobs in the Gulf countries and Malaysia, according to the Foreign Employment Board Nepal. In Saudi Arabia alone, of the 350,000 Nepalis there, around 120,000 have been rendered jobless. Of all those who have lost their jobs in the Gulf countries and Malaysia, only 43,000 have made it back to Nepal. Hundreds of thousands more want to return, but they can’t, even though many of them have the means to do so. Nepal has put severe restrictions on international flights. Most flights are to resume on Sept 1. But the government says it is in no position to bring back its nationals from countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, whose Covid-19 tests are unreliable.
The stranded Nepalis, who have been fired and asked to go home by their companies, are running out of options. Jhapa’s Raju Murma was released from work by his Saudi employers six months ago. Murma says he is running short of both cash and patience. He had brought a ticket home with the Rs 50,000 his family in Nepal had sent him. He even had a PCR test done. But then his flight got cancelled. Likewise, Morang’s Mahendra Hemron has been relying on the cash sent by his family in Nepal; his former employers declined even food allowance. The Supreme Court of Nepal had in July ordered the government to repatriate Nepali citizens and pay for their return via the Rs 6 billion-strong foreign employment welfare fund. Guidelines were then issued on how Nepali migrants abroad could apply for free return. Yet the guidelines entailed undergoing a time-consuming process—and now flights from many destinations favored by Nepalis have been barred.
If their suspected Covid-19 infection is a problem, surely, they can be made to follow isolation procedures and get tested back in their home country. There will be many logistical hurdles in this process, no doubt. But those cannot be an excuse to abandon your citizens in times of crisis. The longer the government delays the in-bound flights, the greater will be chances of a chaotic repatriation. The Nepali state has failed to keep citizens inside its borders safe. It could do a better job of managing those struggling for their very lives on the outside.