Stranded in Near Statelessness: The Coronavirus and Nepali Migrant Workers

By Kelly Dudine, staff writer for RightsViews 

Men, women and children spend days in an open field, hungry, thirsty, exhausted, and abandoned. Unable to stay in India due to job loss following the Coronavirus pandemic, and prevented from traveling back to their homes in Nepal amid fears of spreading the virus, these Nepali migrant workers and their families are stranded at the Nepal-India border in a form of temporary statelessness.

“How many days can children go without food or water? How many days? This is a human rights violation,” says Maggie Doyne, Co-Founder of the BlinkNow Foundation.

The non-profit is among many local and international organizations responding to the growing humanitarian crisis in Nepal, including the Nepalgunj Medical College, ODA Foundation, Mottey Gang, Nepal Red Cross, and NYEF – Kathmandu Chapter, among others. 

Stepping in where the State is failing to meet the needs of its people, relief efforts are establishing food distribution banks and providing essential care services to thousands of returning migrant workers. Beyond the borders, hundreds of thousands more are stranded overseas in equally grave circumstances, anxiously waiting to be allowed to return home.

Nepal is struggling to respond to the pandemic in a way that meets human rights standards, and there are doubts on whether its economy and healthcare systems can absorb the influx of citizens returning home from foreign countries. Both immediately and in the long run, Nepali migrant workers and the families who rely on their remittances for survival face increased risks of joblessness, homelessness, and extreme poverty.  

While the current situation in Nepal is dire, the coronavirus only exacerbates the abuses already experienced by this community. Migrant workers around the globe consistently experience extreme exploitation and abuse. The coronavirus further exposes the harsh realities of the migrant worker economy, and emphasizes that both home and host countries are not doing enough to protect the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and youth who make up the migrant workforce. 

Global Context: The Plight of Migrant Workers

The global migrant worker economy is massive: in 2017, there were around 164 million migrant workers globally, almost half of whom were women, and in 2018, global remittances reached a record-high of $689 billion. Yet, even before the Coronavirus pandemic, it was rife with challenges and human rights abuses. 

Many countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, support and promote the export of labor as an economic strategy to drive development. Despite this, the very existence of the migrant worker economy is fraught with contradiction. On one hand, migrant workers are prized because their home countries greatly benefit from remittances and in turn host countries receive cheap, under regulated labor. On the other hand, migrant workers are often disrespected and devalued in both host and home countries. 

Globally, migrant workers experience discrimination, low or unpaid wages, poor work and living conditions, insufficient social protections, and precarious legal statuses. In the Gulf States, for example, the kafala system limits the rights of migrant workers by tying worker visas and legal statuses to their employers. It is not uncommon for migrant workers to have to give up their passports, experience restrictions on their freedom of movement, and face imprisonment for leaving a job without the employer’s permission. Migrant workers are also often victims to fraudulent and deceptive recruitment practices, leaving them in exploitive work environments and trapped in overwhelming financial debt.

In response to the needs of this vulnerable labor force, various international labor and human rights mechanisms have sought to establish a foundation of legal protections for migrant workers, including the UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and the International Labor Organization (ILO) Migration for Employment Convention and Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention. However, these treaties often have low levels of ratification, which makes them harder to enforce and implement. The UN Convention, for example, has only been ratified by 20 states. Nepal has not ratified any of these international treaties.

Female migrant workers are especially vulnerable. Economic discrimination and oppressive patriarchal norms are key motivators for migration, and many women resort to illegal migration to circumvent social barriers, which leaves them outside the realm of state protections. Women often take on low-skilled jobs, work in the garment sector, or provide domestic care work, which is a largely unprotected sector of employment. According to the ILO, migrant domestic care workers around the world often have no access to social or legal protections, and many are vulnerable to extreme labor exploitation and gender-based violence in their host countries. In 2013, the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers entered into force, aiming to increase protection of domestic workers, including their right to receive fair wages, limited working hours and adequate rest, and the choice of where to live. This convention, however, also has a low level of ratification, with only 29 State Parties. Nepal has not joined the Convention. 

Additionally, states that benefit from remittance-driven economies promote policies and protections to help to increase the export of labor by making it more attractive to potential migrant workers. However, in practice, the enforcement of such policies is lacking, which leaves citizens abroad vulnerable to abuse.

Simply put, a market like the migrant worker economy, which functions on the backs of thousands of exploited and neglected people, will never be resilient to shocks or crises like the Coronavirus, nor will it thrive in the long run. 

Nepal’s Migrant Workers

Migrant workers provide an economic lifeline for the Nepali economy. Many young people travel abroad to find employment, earn an income, and provide for their families back home through remittances. According to a recent report by the Nepal Ministry of Labour and Employment (NMLE), remittance inflows reached 26.9% of Nepal’s national GDP in 2017, making the country the fourth highest remittance recipient in the world. More than 3.5 million migrant labor permits have been issued to Nepali nationals over the last nine years, with migration concentrated in Malaysia and the Gulf States. India is another leading receiver of Nepali migration; however, due to open borders, there are limited records of migration flows and little information on how many Nepali citizens live and work in the country. 

The NMLE report also indicates that many Nepali migrant workers have negative experiences abroad. Between 2013-2016, 12,090 complaints were filed with the Department of Foreign Employment (DOFE), which included requests for repatriation, assistance in repossessing passports, and rescue from the destination country. 

The International Organization on Migration states that young Nepali women are increasingly traveling abroad to seek job opportunities. India is thought to be the leading receiver of women migrant workers, followed by the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia. In the latter countries, Nepali women typically take on cleaning labor or domestic care work.

In the Gulf States in particular, abuse of women migrant workers is reported to be rampant, leading the government of Nepal to enact various bans over the years on women migrant workers traveling to those areas. Most recently, in 2016, Nepal implemented a ban specifically restricting domestic care work in those states. This move, however, has been criticized for potentially causing more harm than good. Without addressing social policies and economic disparities at home, which are often triggers for migration, the ban is said to be doing little more than forcing women workers to migrate through unsafe channels, and to be less protected by the government while abroad. Additionally, despite concerns, more than 20,000 women were permitted to travel to Gulf States for other jobs in 2017, while an untold number of women left Nepal without documentation to avoid the ban. 

Fraudulent recruitment practices are a critical challenge in the migrant worker economy, which often trap migrant workers in desperate situations and leave their families with insurmountable financial debts. Over the years, the government of Nepal introduced various policies to address these practices, including the introduction of an information management system to increase transparency and policies to minimize recruitment fees. However, a report on these policies conducted by Amnesty International found that little progress has been made in addressing the causes of abuse nor in holding those responsible to account.  

Furthermore, a review of Nepal’s migrant labor policies conducted by the ILO in 2017 showed that while Nepal’s legal frameworks promote employment abroad as a “safe and decent prospect for potential migrants,” implementation of the policies have been lacking. Among these are the National Labour Policy of 1999, Foreign Employment Act of 2007, and the Foreign Employment Policy of 2012. The report shows that while the policies aim to increase protections for Nepali citizens working abroad, they have received limited enforcement. It also notes that Nepal’s national laws do not include regulations around recruitment of migrant workers, and as described above, Nepal is not a State Party to many relevant international legal mechanisms which could help to increase the legitimacy of Nepal’s protection policies. 

The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Growing Humanitarian Crisis in Nepal

The vulnerability of Nepali migrant workers, the dependence on this labor for economic growth, the shock of the Coronavirus, and the lack of support for returning nationals is contributing to a growing humanitarian crisis in Nepal. 

In response to the Coronavirus, the government of Nepal ordered a mandatory lockdown in early March, cutting off travel to and from the country, effectively leaving thousands of Nepali nationals stranded at their country’s border or overseas. Migrant workers began reporting that their precarious positions abroad were becoming a matter of life or death; poor living conditions and lack of access to healthcare increase public health risks, companies are withholding past pay, workers are losing their jobs without unemployment insurance or residency rights, and many Nepali citizens find themselves penniless, homeless, and alone, sleeping on the streets of foreign lands. 

The situation at the neighboring border with India is equally challenging. Closed borders and bridges have forced some to swim across the Mahakali river to enter Nepal, while others have  been held on crowded buses or left in forests for days waiting for COVID-19 testing, often without food or water. When they finally reach quarantine centers, they face discrimination, overcrowding, and a lack of basic sanitation and essential care services. 

The situation will only increase in severity, as an estimated 400,000 migrant workers are waiting to return to Nepal. This is a staggering number when considering the country’s resource constraints. Nepali doctors warn that the country’s already weak healthcare system may not be able to keep up with the pandemic, and there is limited job opportunity to support everyone in need of employment. 

Nepal is among the many South Asian countries that are grappling with reintegration plans. Governments that typically rely on exported labor are now facing the immense task of reincorporating workers into the home economy, which remain largely shut down due to the pandemic. Experts warn that such mass movements of people can pose health and safety risks and lead to increased social unrest. 

In the long run, Nepal’s economy is expected to take strain, threatening businesses and workers alike. A report by the World Bank estimates that economic growth in Nepal will fall to 1.5 – 2.8%, largely due lower remittances from abroad and a decrease in trade and tourism caused by the Coronavirus. Low-income people are projected to be hit the hardest, as food and housing security is threatened, which could reinforce inequality within the country.

Ultimately, while Nepal has greatly benefitted from risky exported labor, the care and compassion for those workers has been limited. The failure of Nepali authorities to repatriate its citizens abroad may even violate international human rights law, which protects the right of all people to return to their country of citizenship. Additionally, the lack of essential services provided to repatriated citizens upon return to Nepal violates their human rights to food, water, shelter, and healthcare. 

Looking Ahead: An Opportunity for Change

The efforts of local actors to address the needs of returning nationals provides some hope for immediate relief. Among them, a new campaign started by Nepali influencers, called Nyaano Swaagat, or “Welcome Home,” aims to combat the discrimination and stigma experienced by migrant workers, and to provide important resources, including tools to manage mental health and wellness. By focusing on maintaining the dignity of the men, women and children who are returning home, the campaign advocates an important shift in the perception of migrant workers and the government’s treatment of its own citizens. 

Campaigns like this should remain strong post-coronavirus to combat perceptions of migrant workers and keep advocating for changes to the global migrant worker economy. 

Additionally, national policies need to be more than just reactive; they must be transformative. With the Coronavirus casting a much needed light on the plight of migrant workers, now is the time to establish a stronger enabling environment that better protects and supports citizens abroad at all times, not just times of crisis.

The ILO has issued a list of recommendations to help governments design coronavirus policy responses that ensure the protection of migrant workers. Leveraging these recommendations, Nepal must work to assist workers in returning home safely, and provide quality care and support when they arrive home.

When thinking long term, the World Economic Forum suggests that digitization can make migrant workers more resilient to future shocks. Recommendations include leveraging ‘know your customer’ (e-KYC) systems and linking digital remittances to savings or pension accounts that can support families in times of need. Additionally, countries like Nepal can strengthen protections for migrant workers in contracts with both host countries and the private sector.

Nepal should also make the protection of migrant workers more systematic and explicit by ratifying all relevant international human rights treaty bodies and allocating budget and resources for their implementation. Additionally, social and economic policies that encourage job growth in Nepal could help to stem the need for labor migration, allowing families to stay together and support Nepal’s development from within. 

Without real structural changes to improve the resilience of this labor force, the coronavirus will be just one shock of many to come, and countries like Nepal will remain exposed and vulnerable to future humanitarian crises.

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