The problem starts with the definition. Can the Nepali migrant workers who use illegal channels to go abroad be deemed to have been ‘trafficked’? Yes, many of them would have voluntarily left the country, but on landing in the destination countries, they would have found that the safe work conditions and decent pay promised by the middlemen were chimeras. Their travel documents taken away by their employers, many would have been forced to work like slaves, which would make them victims of human trafficking as per the UN definition. But it is a grey area, which is precisely why unscrupulous manpower agents thrive in it. Yet, apparently, the nexus of traffickers in Nepal extends far beyond these manpower agents. It turns out that the officials of the Department of Immigration, staffers of various airline companies as well as the security personnel stationed at the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) are directly involved in trafficking of Nepali nationals. This is the finding of the parliament’s International Relations and Labor Committee, based on its field visits to four labor destinations—Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The probe team found that 60 percent illegal migrant workers travelled to these Gulf countries via the TIA. Clearly, this would not have been possible without the complicity of airport staff.
This is not the only disturbing finding of the probe. Another is that the provision of ‘free visa and tickets’, part of the government’s effort to minimize the expenses of Nepali migrant workers, is also being openly flouted. On their inspection visits members of the parliamentary panel found that all the companies they visited provided free visa and tickets to their foreign workers. Yet the Nepali workers there claimed to have paid anywhere between Rs 50,000 to Rs 900,000 to manpower agents in fat (and illegal) commissions. Yet no manpower agent in Nepal has been punished for so openly duping people. The probe panel flagged indifference of state authorities to controlling trafficking as another big problem. This indifference is in turn responsible for yet another failure of Nepali state: lack of initiative in signing labor agreements with destination countries and renewal of such agreements if they already exist. There are still other manifestations of official callousness. For instance it was reported last year that millions of rupees that were to be spent in the welfare of Nepali migrant workers were instead used to buy luxurious vehicles for embassy staffs.
It is easy to blame the ‘cruel’ governments of autocratic Gulf countries and their ‘pathetic’ work conditions that victimize Nepali workers. But, then, what has their own country done for them, in return for up to US $5 billion a year they send back in remittance, the country’s lifeblood in recent years? Precious little, it appears. The recent pro-active measures of our parliament have thus come as a breath of fresh air. But our MPs can only flag the problems. It is up to the executive to see to it that their recommendations are strictly enforced. The probe panel has made some valuable suggestions but they will all come to a naught unless there is strong political commitment to ensuring the health and safety of Nepali migrant workers. Punishing the unconscionable TIA staffers and security personnel would be a good start.