Dispatch

Watching Your Country Collapse from Afar

Thousands of Nepali workers in Qatar struggle to find a way to go home -- and give back -- to a country in crisis.

Nepalese migrant workers queue to receive official documents in order to leave Nepal from the Labour department in Kathmandu on January 27, 2014.  Nearly 200 Nepali migrant workers died in Qatar in 2013, many of them from heart failure, officials said, figures that highlight the grim plight of labourers in the Gulf nation.   AFP PHOTO/Prakash MATHEMA        (Photo credit should read PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images)
Nepalese migrant workers queue to receive official documents in order to leave Nepal from the Labour department in Kathmandu on January 27, 2014. Nearly 200 Nepali migrant workers died in Qatar in 2013, many of them from heart failure, officials said, figures that highlight the grim plight of labourers in the Gulf nation. AFP PHOTO/Prakash MATHEMA (Photo credit should read PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images)

On April 26, the day after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked Nepal, Deepak Bhandari, a marketing officer at a labor supply firm in Doha went to a construction company’s office for a meeting. Bhandari, now 29, left his home in Nepal 10 years ago and has worked in Qatar since. In the company’s waiting room, he met a Nepali man with tears in his eyes. “Bhai (brother), what is wrong?” he asked.

“He told me his entire family had died in the earthquake, all five of them: his parents, his wife, and his two children. His home was completely destroyed,” Bhandari told me recently over the phone. The man was from Sindhupalchok, a district just outside of the capital of Kathmandu, which was among the hardest hit in late April. More than 3,000 people died in Sindhupalchok alone, according to the United Nations humanitarian agency. But the damage represents just part of a much larger disaster: more than 7,000 people were killed in Nepal’s first quake, and a quarter of a million homes damaged or destroyed. On May 12, yet another powerful earthquake, measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale, hit the country, killing dozens more.

The man Bhandari met was a laborer working to renovate Doha’s al-Khalifa stadium, one of the planned sites for the 2022 World Cup. Stuck thousands of miles away when tragedy struck, he was waiting to meet his manager so he could get permission to go back to Nepal and arrange for his family’s funerals.

“I just hugged him and tried to give him some good words,” Bhandari told me. “I told him to go back to Nepal and support others there.” He didn’t see the man again and never learned whether the company gave him permission to go home.

Some 400,000 Nepalis live and work in Qatar, more than the number of Qatari nationals in the country. Qatar is one of the most common destinations for Nepalis who seek work abroad, and many of them do — at least 25 percent of the Nepal’s GDP comes from remittances earned by workers abroad, and one study estimated that 55 percent of families depend on the earnings of a migrant worker. Though some have found jobs in Doha offices and earned promotions, most men work in construction, earning about $220 per month.

For these migrant laborers, going home to bury their loved ones is not just a painful duty. It is also luxury that many can ill-afford. Some workers are still in debt after paying recruitment fees that, while banned by Qatari law, remain common. Workers I have met in Qatar paid between $700 and $3000 to agents in their villages or in Kathmandu get their jobs there, often mortgaging their family’s land or home to come up with the funds. Now, these laborers, who have limited means and are often restricted in their travels, are struggling to figure out how to support their families and communities.

According to Sagar Nepal, a businessman in Doha and the head of the local Non-Resident Nepali Association, the earthquakes have affected more than 500 Nepali workers in Qatar. At least 130 had called or spoken to him personally, asking for his help. When we spoke over the phone, Sagar was scrambling to find donations to pay for workers’ tickets home.

Yet even if workers do get the money, they may be banned from leaving the country. Qatar, like the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, regulates migrant workers through the kafala system: a set of immigration rules that bind them to a specific employer whose permission they must have in order to change jobs, quit, or leave the country. In practice, the system gives employers near-total control over workers under their sponsorship.

To fly home for any reason — including a death in the family — workers must have an “exit permit” authorized by their employer. Qatar is one of only two Gulf countries that require this of migrant workers (Saudi Arabia is the other), and for the past several years, international trade unions and human rights groups have campaigned for its abolition. In the past, employers have refused to sign these permits, leaving workers trapped in the country against their will. Employers also confiscate workers’ passports to prevent them from traveling. In a 2014 survey of nearly 1,200 low-income migrant workers in Qatar, 90 percent said their employers kept their passports.

After April’s disaster, Nikesh Sapotka, a Nepali embassy official in Doha said that the embassy had to intervene with employers of at least 25 Nepali workers who wanted to go home. “We have been helping them in every way possible, by calling company management and requesting them to provide at least a short-term leave to allow them to get to Nepal,” Sapotka told eKantipur, a Nepali news service.

“They already invest lot of money to bring people here,” Bhandari said of the Qatari employers. “If they send him they think maybe he will not come back.” Sagar Nepal told me that he had been calling employers to urge them to provide exit permits to workers affected by the quake. He didn’t say whether any had refused.

For migrants stuck in Qatar — as well as those who were not personally affected — there is a sense of responsibility to aid the recovery effort from abroad. For the past two years, Bhandari and 10 others from his district back home, have met monthly for what he calls an “investment club.” Each month, its members contribute part of their income to a savings fund they plan to invest in a business back in Chitwan, their home district. They also each contribute 10 riyals a month (about $2.70) towards an emergency fund they can draw on when members of their community are in need.

In the past, the club has donated money to help Nepali migrants in Qatar. They have paid, for example, to send the bodies of workers from Chitwan who die in Qatar back to their home villages if employers won’t bear the cost. (Though Qatari law holds employers responsible for repatriating bodies, employers are rarely prosecuted for violations.) According to Bhandari, it costs about 10,000 riyals (about $2,700) to purchase a coffin suitable for air transport, to arrange an escort, and to buy passage for the body on a plane home — a fee that migrants’ families can rarely afford.

The same day Bhandari met the man from Sindhupalchok, he and the other members of his investment club decided unanimously to empty the emergency fund they’d built over two years and contribute to relief efforts back home.

Over the past few weeks, more than $120 million have been pledged to Nepal relief efforts by governments around the world and the United Nations. Compared to these figures, the sum collected by the Bhandari’s investment club is miniscule: the group managed to amass about 120,000 Nepali rupees, about $1,160 — the total of their emergency fund and some additional donations.

Economists forecast that relief and reconstruction on Nepal will cost billions of dollars and take years. The country’s needs will continue long after images of demolished temples and homes fade from Western television screens. In this context, Nepali migrants’ earnings, as well as their donations, can play a vital role in financing that reconstruction.

For its part, Qatar has pledged 1 million riyals (about $275,000) to earthquake relief efforts in Nepal, and the local Red Crescent had launched an appeal to raise an additional 12 million ($3.3 million). Qatar sent a team of relief workers to help with damage assessment, and donated a field hospital to treat earthquake victims. Four planes left Doha carrying 240 tons of disaster supplies including food, medicines, and tents, to Kathmandu.

But while Qatar’s government rushes to help the victims of a natural disaster, it has no solution for workers stranded by poverty and employers’ exploitation in their own country. There is no emergency fund for Nepalis who paid recruitment fees that, while banned by Qatari law, remain common — and who now can’t afford a ticket home for loved ones’ funerals. Exit permits for workers affected by the earthquake remain entirely at employers’ discretion. The government has not waived the requirement, in response to the emergency.

For now, it falls to migrants to provide their own safety net: both back home in Nepal, and in Qatar, their temporary home.

PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images

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