EDITORIAL: Right to roam

Govt must bear in mind that people are citizens, not subjects and any move to restrict people’s mobility will contravene human rights

All is not well in Nepal it seems when it comes to freedoms, individualism and liberty, among others — which are the basic tenets of democracy. After the unified communist party — now named Nepal Communist Party (NCP) — swept the federal and provincial elections last year, KP Oli assumed office in February to become the most powerful prime minister in Nepal’s recent history. Soon after, his government started showing signs of using the electoral mandate — the incumbent government has the backing of the two-thirds majority in Parliament — to rule with tough policies. The move of bringing various government agencies under the Prime Minister’s Office, the National Integrity Policy, a mechanism designed to control non-governmental organisations, the Foreign Nationals Monitoring Directive, yet another mechanism to monitor foreign nationals, and attempts to restrict people from accessing public places to express dissent are some of the examples.

Now, the Oli government is mulling over making it mandatory for Nepalis to get clearance from local bodies before leaving for foreign destinations on a tourist visa. The draft of the Immigration Guideline prepared by the Department of Immigration (DoI) states that every Nepali, who travels abroad on a tourist visa, must get a recommendation letter from the local government stating that the traveller is “financially sound” to make the trip. Such a move to restrict people’s mobility will infringe upon citizens’ right to mobility and travel freely. It must be noted that the Oli administration in July had “picked up” Kul Prasad Koirala, vice chancellor of Nepal Sanskrit University, from the TIA and barred him from flying to Canada. A month later, the government stopped a former Maoist child soldier from flying to Bangkok. And now, the Oli government is working on a preposterous guideline to restrict the mobility of the citizens. This not only contravenes the rights of the individual but also contradicts Prime Minister Oli’s assertion at an event hosted by Asia Society in New York on Wednesday that “Nepal’s commitment to democracy and fundamental freedoms are total”.

While the draft guideline is full of absurdity, the intent that it carries is worrisome. What government officials say in defence of the guideline is devoid of logic. “We found that a person had travelled to Dubai 10 times in a month to smuggle gold to Nepal,” DoI Director General Ishwor Poudel told THT. According to him, the new provisions are aimed also at curbing human trafficking, as smugglers use tourist visas to ferry Nepalis abroad. Of course it’s the state’s duty to control smuggling, human trafficking and other criminal activities, but how fair is it in a democracy to introduce a bogus regulation which sees every citizen as a criminal or potential criminal? Individuality, liberty and freedom to travel freely are human rights and the state must uphold them. The Oli government must bear in mind that we the people are citizens, not subjects and that it has been elected to serve the citizens, not to rule the subjects.

Don’t ignore them

In 2017, 34 Nepali workers hired by a Qatari firm, Mercury MENA, returned home penniless and overloaded with debt. The Qatari company involved in the construction of infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup had hired these workers but failed to pay them since they started working. The company owes each Nepali worker $2,035 on average, according to the Amnesty International. Every day, more than 1,000 Nepalis head for foreign labour destinations, as there is a dearth of job opportunities here. But many of these workers are exploited by their foreign employers.

The government has established embassies or consulates in Gulf nations, like Qatar, primarily to protect the interest of Nepali workers. But they are not doing enough to protect workers’ rights. For example, Nepali workers who returned home penniless from Qatar about a year ago still haven’t received their due salary and are struggling to repay the money they had borrowed to land the job. The government must understand that labour export, for now, is the biggest source of foreign income for the country with remittance inflow standing at over Rs 750 billion in the last fiscal year. So, it must ensure these workers are treated with dignity abroad.