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Nepal Abandons Migrant Workers in Fight Against COVID-19

Workers Stranded Without Income are Denied the Right to Return Home

A member of medical staff wearing a facemask amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, checks the body temperature of travellers arriving from India at the eastern border with Nepal in Kakarvitta, March 14, 2020.  © 2020 Diptendu Dutta/AFP via Getty Images

In a welcome decision, hundreds of Nepalis who work in India and were crowded at the border trying to go back home will now be supported by Indian authorities. Nepal will support Indians stranded there. But others scattered across the Gulf states, Malaysia, and elsewhere, are also in desperate circumstances.

Nepal’s government faces huge challenges to keep its people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, but its response should not be denying citizens the right to come home. Nepal’s government closed its borders and stopped international flights on March 22. Some Nepalis working abroad are now stuck, as their jobs are lost and countries go into lockdown.

Human Rights Watch has spoken to stranded workers at Darchula, on Nepal’s western border with India, where around 500 people are pleading to be allowed back in. “We’ve been sleeping in the roads,” said 41-year-old Dilendra Singh Mahata. “It’s cold at night. We’re really hungry. If that disease doesn’t kill us, this will. We’re willing to quarantine, but we want to come home.”

On March 30, three men resorted to swimming across the Mahakali river, and were promptly arrested.

Others are stranded elsewhere. A group of Nepali men who worked as taxi drivers in the United Arab Emirates told Human Rights Watch they have no money and are taking turns to share a bed, or even sleeping in parks, after they lost their jobs. “We’re really stressed because we can’t go home. We have run out of food. I don’t know what to do,” one of the men said. “We’ve been talking to the embassy, but they are not willing to meet us.”

Nepali authorities have made little provision for returning citizens because they have few facilities to quarantine them. Imposing restrictions without addressing the needs of citizens entitled to return home denies them their basic rights. Such restrictions are also less likely to be effective, if they force people to live in crowded conditions, or evade controls instead of cooperating with quarantine requirements.

The Nepali government should act immediately so that its citizens can come home. It should also work with other governments to ensure the protection of its citizens abroad.

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