The ticking time bomb of Nepal’s returning migrant workers
India’s coronavirus lockdown forced migrant Nepali workers to flee back home, creating humanitarian and economic crises.
Dev Bishwo Karma waited for hours by the side of a remote mountain road in the northwestern Nepali district of Karnali in late May, hoping to somehow find a way home.
The 20-year-old, formerly employed as a hotel worker in the Indian city of Pune, said it took him four days of travel by bus to get there, a harrowing journey with little clarity on what would happen once he arrived in Nepal.
“We didn’t get food or water when we needed it the most,” Karma said. “There were no vehicles for transport.”
Karma is one of tens of thousands of Nepali migrant workers who have flooded back home by land after losing their jobs following India’s lockdown to try and contain the coronavirus, creating a humanitarian crisis that now also threatens the stability of Nepal’s fragile economy. Remittances from overseas Nepali workers like Karma have long propped up the country’s income.
The BlinkNow Foundation, a nongovernmental organisation based in Nepal that is helping migrant workers in Karnali, interviewed several of the returning Nepalis for Al Jazeera.
Many of Karma’s fellow migrants say they travelled for days without food or water, and now that they are back in their own country, do not have faith in the government’s quarantine facilities.
Public health officials warn that the return of Nepali migrants, if mismanaged, could lead to an exponential spread of the coronavirus in the poor South Asian country.
Last year, overseas Nepali workers sent home more than $8.1bn to their families. Remittances make up more than 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), according to World Bank data.
In all, about 7.4 percent of Nepal’s 28 million people work abroad, more than twice the global average, according to the World Bank.
But with the coronavirus curtailing employment opportunities, many of those migrant workers are being forced to return home. Neighbouring India has the largest proportion of overseas Nepalis, with an estimated two million people.
‘Walked for five days’
On March 25, India imposed a strict lockdown in an attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus, freezing the economy and placing strict restrictions on movement, leaving many migrant workers – both Indian citizens and those working in the country on visas – stranded.
At first, Nepali migrants say, it was impossible to go anywhere.
Shaktiru Khatka, a labourer who was working in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, said he and a group of other Nepalis walked for five days to find a bus to get home.
“Our friends took our bags and went ahead. We don’t have anything [but the clothes we are wearing],” said Khatka.
Once the Indian government loosened restrictions to allow migrant workers to return home, Nepalis flooded towards the border, travelling by bus, van, or in the back of trucks carrying commercial goods.
But Nepal had sealed its border with India on March 22, three days before India shut down, and it only started allowing people to cross the porous 1,800km (1,118-mile) border late in May.
At Nepalgunj, one of the main border crossings between the countries, the situation is dire.
“There are about two thousand people coming through every single day,” says Dr Nitesh Kumar Kanodia, assistant director of the Nepalgunj Medical College. “It takes about three or four days to get there, and they have not eaten for two or three days.”
Kanodia said many migrants spoke of being denied service at roadside restaurants in India, out of suspicion that they may have been carrying the coronavirus.
“Even if they stop at a restaurant or something in India, because of the stigma, people may not want to serve them or sell them goods,” he said.
Returning migrants waiting to go back to their villages in the northwestern Karnali district – one of Nepal’s poorest – said they continued to be harassed even after they crossed the border.
“Yesterday, the police came and told us you will not get food or water, just stay in the bus,” said one man who did not offer his name. “They said whether you eat or not, we don’t care.”
Sachyam Sharma, an aid worker with the BlinkNow Foundation, said the government did not appear to have systems in place to deal with the flood of migrants.
“It was very hot [and] they were so angry, because they had not had water to drink, they had had no food to eat,” Sharma told Al Jazeera, describing conditions at the entrance to Karnali district. “It had been a day since they had come to Nepal and they were just lying there in the bus, because the test kits were not ready for them.”
Maggie Doyne, cofounder of BlinkNow, works with Nepali partners to provide food and water to those flooding into Karnali.
“They are sleeping in the jungle, there are no bathrooms, they can’t leave the buses,” Doyne told Al Jazeera.
Nepal’s government policy on incoming migrants has been to transport them to their home districts, where they are expected to be quarantined in camps run by local authorities until they complete 14 days in isolation.
“We are making arrangements for vehicles to transport returnee migrants to their native places where they have to first stay in quarantine,” Suman Ghimire, joint secretary at the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security, told Nepal’s Himalayan Times newspaper.
Observers, however, say the facilities are simply not adequate.
“The quarantines are not up to standard,” said BlinkNow’s Sharma. “If I was to stay in quarantine, looking at the situation, I think I would have run. […] They don’t have proper water, they don’t have food, no bathrooms. “
Health, economic crises ahead
As of June 9, Nepal had registered at least 3,762 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University, with 14 deaths recorded. Nepal’s Health Ministry says more than 166,660 people are in quarantine.
“In the case of Nepal, what we have seen is that there has been a large influx of people into the country in recent weeks, and the authorities have struggled to find sufficient accommodation for them in a very short time,” the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Nepal office told Al Jazeera via email. “This has led in some locations to suboptimal conditions when it comes to quarantine sites.”
The WHO says that Nepal’s outbreak currently appears to stem mainly from infections from travellers, rather than local transmission of the virus.
“How much local transmission we will see will depend on several factors, such as: how well is the quarantine working […], how well do people adhere to the basic protection rules […], how long will the lockdown last and how effective will it be,” the WHO’s statement said.
Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli has publicly blamed returning migrants for causing the spread of the virus in Nepal.
“People returning home from neighbouring India have been flouting the rules and returning home while facing many difficulties to get across the border without proper tests,” he said in a televised address to the nation on May 25.
On the economic front, Nepali authorities and international financial organisations are bracing for a significant shock.
“A reduction in remittances [due to the pandemic] will increase the risk of individuals falling into poverty,” Kene Ezemenari, the World Bank’s senior country economist for Nepal, told Al Jazeera.
“About 31.2 percent of the population estimated to live just above the poverty line risk falling into extreme poverty, primarily due to lower remittances, foregone earnings of potential migrants, job losses in the informal sector, and higher prices for essential commodities due to the lockdowns,” Ezemenari said.
Nepali central bank data shows that remittances have fallen by 4.7 percent in the first nine months of the 2019-2020 financial year, with economic growth expected to “decelerate substantially”.
Current projections for Nepal’s GDP growth this fiscal year have been cut to 2.28 percent, as compared to an average growth rate of 7.3 percent in the last three years, according to the central bank.
The World Bank’s Ezemenari said overall remittances are expected to drop from an average of 25 percent of GDP between 2017 to 2019, to 18 percent in the coming years.
In April alone, month-on-month remittances fell by more than 56 percent, according to central bank data.
Protecting the vulnerable
The government has, however, announced plans to adjust the economy to absorb the large numbers of returnees.
According to Sharad Bhandari, the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) principal economist in Nepal, these include deploying returnees to development projects and programmes to build people’s skills and match them to employment opportunities. The government is also providing relief measures to businesses and small-scale farmers so that they can hire returning migrants.
“Effective social protection systems are crucial to safeguarding the poor and vulnerable during this crisis,” Bhandari told Al Jazeera.
But the government will also need to take steps to control its ballooning trade deficit in the wake of slowing growth, Bhandari warned.
So far, the ADB has approved a $250m concessional loan to aid the Nepali government in its COVID-19 response, while the World Bank has offered a $29m emergency support project. Overseas development assistance contributes about six percent to the GDP of Nepal.
For migrants still struggling to get home, many waiting on the side of the road for transport to an uncertain future, questions of macroeconomic stability must feel distant.
Birendra Bahadur Shahi, 45, spent all night camped out by the side of the road in the town of Babai.
“Please send this message: We are ready to sit in quarantine for 15 days in our own districts and our own places, but tell them [to] just get us there.”