KATHMANDU - Hundreds of Nepali migrant workers have started returning home from the Gulf and Malaysia in the wake of the Great Earthquake.
Nepali missions in various work destinations say the migrants are returning to conduct the death rituals of their loved ones, help make temporary shelters and be with their families.
Tirtha Tamang of Dhumthang, Sindhupalchok, returned to Nepal from the UAE upon learning that he had lost his father in the earthquake and that his family was living in a tent.
"I have heard that several houses in my village have been destroyed. I will return to work after completing the final rites and shifting my family to another house," said Tamang.
An estimated three million Nepalis work in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman.
Some of the hardest-hit districts, including Lamjung and Gorkha have long remained dependent on a remittance-driven economy.
The Nepali missions abroad have requested the labour-receiving governments and employers to make necessary arrangements for Nepali migrants to return home. The missions have also urged companies employing Nepali workers to arrange paid leave for them.
Many workers, however, have not been able to return because their employers are not allowing them leave and because there aren't enough flights to Kathmandu. Some are not returning because of the costs involved in doing so.
Nepali workers, most of them poor, go to the Gulf and Malaysia after paying huge amounts in recruitment fees, which many borrow from local landlords after taking out loans with interest rates as high as 60 per cent.
In some cases, the workers are staying put after deliberating over the issue. Uddhab Giri, a resident of Bhadritar, Nuwakot, who lost his wife in the Great Quake, is not returning from Qatar as per the advice of his parents.
"We cannot do anything even if we return. We need money now like never before, as we have to start again from rock bottom," says Giri's brother Prushottam. Three of Giri's brothers are working in Qatar.
The Nepali embassies in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have asked the work-destination governments to improve communication facilities for workers, send them on emergency leave and provide at least a month's salary in advance if they need to support their families in Nepal.
Nitesh Sapkota, second secretary of Nepal's mission in Qatar, said that around 25 people have so far sought the embassy's help to return home. Following the earthquake, several employers in Qatar and Malaysia have been providing urgent paid leave, along with air tickets and salaries in advance, while some others have even pledged to assist in rebuilding the houses of the workers.
It is particularly difficult for the workers to return home on urgent leave from the Gulf countries because under the notorious Kafala system, a sponsor's consent is mandatory for them to get passes to leave the country. The system allows the employers to retain the workers' visas and make their return home troublesome.
Sonam Lama, a Nuwakot resident who works in Saudi Arabia, told the Post that some people from his village are facing problems in getting the approval of employers and procuring air tickets.
"Two of my friends are returning home on May 19, and two others are returning on May 24. It has become very difficult to find tickets for Kathmandu," said Lama.
The International Trade Union Confederation, an international organisation of labour unionists, has sent letters to the governments of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, calling for an emergency suspension of the Kafala sponsorship system by the Gulf states.
The organisation has also urged the governments to allow the workers to get paid leave and be given an advance on their salaries.