EDITORIAL: Migrant deaths

The deaths of the migrant workers abroad need to be investigated as the family has the right to know the cause

Eighteen bodies of Nepalis who died while working in Malaysia were flown to Kathmandu on Saturday, in what is an often overlooked human and social cost of Nepal’s remittance-based economy. The country’s national flag carrier, Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC), helped bring the 18 bodies and the mortal remains of one another in its wide-body Airbus 330 aircraft. Not all airlines are willing to carry coffins, but NAC did so as part of its corporate social responsibility. Another 37 bodies await being repatriated, according to the Nepali Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. According to the government’s Labour Migration report, in the 11 years since 2008, at least 7,467 migrant workers have died in various countries.

And these government figures might not be giving an accurate picture of the number of migrant workers who have perished abroad as they do not document those who go abroad through unauthorised channels or to India. Until the pandemic shut down the country on March 24, at least three to four bodies of Nepali migrant workers would arrive at Kathmandu Airport. The highest number of deaths of Nepali migrant workers have been from Malaysia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Every year, tens of thousands of Nepali youth go abroad for foreign employment for lack of job opportunities at home. There are today more than four million Nepalis working abroad, most of them in the Gulf countries, Malaysia and South Korea. They send home billions of dollars in remittance annually, which help to maintain the family expenses while keeping the country’s economy afloat. Even during the pandemic period, despite the downturn in the world economy, including that of Nepal’s, quite surprisingly, there was an upsurge in remittance inflow to the country. However, families are beginning to question if it is worth sending their children abroad if they are to return home in coffins or disabled after being injured.

The migrant workers have absolutely no idea of what awaits them in the destination country — the climate, the type of work they will be doing and who their employer will be. They are promised one type of work in Nepal and are duped into doing quite another, mostly 3D work, that is, dirty, dangerous and demeaning.

The high number of deaths of Nepali migrant workers has been attributed to cardiac arrest, accidents in the workplace and suicide. Of the 801 Nepali migrants who died in 2018, 132 had committed suicide.

And in 2019, 730 Nepalis died abroad, of which 111 were suicides. Still a large number of deaths are classified as ‘unknown’. Such deaths need to be investigated as the family has the right to know the cause.

For those who have lost a family member abroad, their pain is prolonged by the inability to repatriate the dead body quickly due to the cumbersome process involved. At times it could take months, which only exacerbate their anguish. The government must, thus, coordinate with related bodies both in Nepal and abroad to bring not only the 37 bodies in Malaysia but in other countries as well. This is the least that the government can do for the families of the migrant workers who toil hard to remit billions of dollars to fuel the country’s economy.

Clean-up drive

The Bagmati Clean-up Mega Campaign, which reached its 402nd week on Saturday, collected about 10 metric tons of garbage from the bed of the holy river. The clean-up campaign has been going on for the last seven years. However, the campaign got suspended during the seven months of lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The clean-up campaign has also been expanded to other rivers, such as the Bishnumati, Manohara, Rudramati and the Ring Road area.

The Bagmati Beautification Programme, which is funded by the Asian Development Bank, has also been hampered due to delay in providing compensation for land and removing the slums built by squatters along the banks of the Bagmati River. The government must come up with a long-term plan to resettle the squatters elsewhere so that the beautification programme can be completed without any further delay. The rivers in the capital have now turned into open drainage or dumping sites due to complete negligence by the government, municipalities and even the general public. The holy rivers can be restored to their past glory if local levels strictly implement their rules that require construction of septic tanks while building new public and private houses.