Cracking down on human traffickers
That foreign employment is a mainstay of our economy is a truism. Migrant workers send home around one and half billion rupees on an average per day. Remittance contributes to around 30 percent of country’s GDP. Nepali brothers and sisters working abroad under the inhospitable conditions have prevented country’s economy from collapsing even during the most difficult times like devastating earthquakes and over four months of economic blockade last year. However, this lifeline of Nepali economy has not been something to cheer for compatriots at home because the news of migrants’ abuse and death make headlines on a regular basis. So the great source of country’s economy has also become a great source of worry for Nepalis.
A number of Nepali workers find themselves stranded, abused or duped by (potential) employers and await rescue. According to Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), Nepali authorities have rescued 79 Nepali workers—19 of them female—from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in the past few weeks. This, however, is not the first time such cases have come to the light. Increasing number of Nepali women workers are being trafficked to various destinations through different routes, expanding to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal. New routes are being explored by traffickers after Indian immigration authorities made it mandatory for Nepali migrant workers to present “no objection letter” issued by the Nepali Embassy in New Delhi. According to some estimates, more than 1200 Nepali women have been flown to the Gulf via Sri Lanka. Many end up working as housemaids, dancers and barmaids under harsh conditions. While working conditions have improved over the years, many continue to suffer in the hands of companies and their owners. Our missions in the Middle East are overwhelmed with the number of complaints they receive on a daily basis. Bi-lateral labor agreements have failed to improve the situation.
While it is extremely urgent to crack down on Nepal-based foreign employment agencies which send workers abroad illegally, long-term solution lies in forging a broader collaboration among nations. The government of Nepal has been coordinating with the Sri Lankan authorities and the Malaysian government in rescue operations. But this won’t be sufficient to dismantle the strong nexus of traffickers. The Gulf and the Middle East are not only the labor destinations for Nepali people. More than 36 million migrant workers from South Asia work in the Gulf. This is why ensuring their safety and decent and dignified working conditions should be the responsibilities of South Asian countries. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) can and should work together and leverage its collective bargaining power to protect the workers in the Gulf.
The Kathmandu Declaration, 2014 of the 18th SAARC Summit had “agreed to collaborate and cooperate on safe, orderly and responsible management of labor migration from South Asia to ensure safety, security and wellbeing of their migrant workers in the destination countries outside the region.” This commitment needs to be translated into action at the earliest.