After the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, the movement of people was restricted to a great extent. As and when the travel restrictions were eased, I took the opportunity to travel with all safety precautions required during the pandemic. This week I am in Dhangadi. While here, thoughts of how migrant workers are faring during this pandemic and how human trafficking is continuing are some of the queries that keep coming to my mind. Every now and then we hear stories of the mishaps that happen when people cross the border by either swimming across the rapid river such as the Karnali River or by using the dangerous cables (twins). It is often times the neglect and sometimes even evil intensions of some authorities that lead to the loss of lives of the poor and vulnerable people. Just a couple of days ago, a Nepali national went missing in the Karnali River after an Indian SSB official allegedly cut an improvised cable used for crossing the Karnali River in Darchula district. There has been a protest by people in this region and the government has set up a probe committee. However, this is not the first time these incidents have happened without the victims and survivors getting justice.
Migration The West and Far West Region of Nepal have a tradition of large number of mainly Nepali men and some Nepali women migrating to India in search of work to feed their families back home. The youth of impoverished districts such as Kailali, Kanchanpur, Bajhang and Bajura migrate to India for work as there is a lack of employment opportunities. These people go mainly to booming cities in India such as Delhi, Gujarat and Maharashtra to seek employment there. On reaching these big cities, they face a lot of socio-economic hardships. Mostly, they take loans from richer families for their travel and settlement costs.
People all over the world migrate from one region to another within their own country and outside in search of wealth, progress and happiness. However, in the process, they fall victims to various situations that they do not foresee. Since centuries there have been migrations of people between Nepal and India via the open border and slowly it has become a major source of income for many Nepali households. Apart from India, the Nepali migrant workers go to countries such as Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait, Europe, USA and Canada. Migration happens both via formal and informal channels. According to Nepal Labour Market report 2020, labour migration from Nepal is pre- dominantly male, with more than eighty per cent of the total labour migrant population in 2017/18 and 2018/19 between the ages of 18 and 35. The share of workers taking up low-skilled work is high at 59 per cent (2018/19) and 64 per cent (2017/18). Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has constrained both their ability to access their places of work in the countries of destination as well as their ability to return to their countries of origin. The Nepal Migrant Worker Report 2020 states that over 4 million labour permits were issued in the last decade and the remittance earned was 8.79 billion in the fiscal year 2018/2019, which accounts for 28 per cent of the GDP for that year. The labour migration is still one of the key features of the Nepali economy. This data does not include migration to India. According to the ILO report of June 2020, the women migrant workers account for 8.5 per cent of the migration flows in Nepal.
The same report mentions that the number of Nepali migrant workers residing in India for employment, as per the National Labour Force Survey, has been estimated at 587,646. Most of them are engaged in the service sector in informal and seasonal work. Approximately 86 per cent of these workers are daily wage earners in the informal sector, primarily in agriculture (approx. 26 per cent) and construction sector (approx. 30 per cent) without any formal employment contract or other benefits, placing no contractual obligations on their employers to provide them with food, accommodation and health care. During the lockdowns imposed by the pandemic, thousands of Nepalis working in India had travelled long distances to return to Nepal, only to find themselves stranded on the India-Nepal border without any further notice due to the travel restrictions placed by the government of Nepal. While efforts were being made to admit Nepali workers back to Nepal, thousands were stranded on the border without adequate food or shelter. Even now these workers are struggling for their livelihoods.
Vulnerable group Migrant workers are a very vulnerable group that face issues of health, livelihood and safe residence. After the earthquake of 2015, the border in the eastern part of Nepal was tightened, and the trafficking points shifted to the West and Far West of the country. With advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the human trafficking aspects may have taken more severe shapes and forms. Nepal Labour Force Survey reveals that there are an estimated 1.7 million daily wage earners and another million workers on temporary contracts together with other informal sector workers who have been significantly affected by the pandemic. Most of these migrant workers do not have sustainable wages, job guarantees, insurance or any other form of social security schemes. The migrant workers, the most vulnerable people on earth, are least likely to register complaints against injustice they are facing. A social and political system is now required to make people all over the world get enough for basic survival so they need not cross borders via unsafe cables or scheming agents who lure them for work in more affluent countries and force them to work and live in harsh conditions.
(Namrata Sharma is a senior journalist and women rights activist. email@example.comTwitter handle: NamrataSharmaP)