South Asian migrant workers bear the brunt of Coronavirus travel bans


Nepal has suspended all permits for migrant workers as part of a programme of travel restrictions due to coronavirus pandemic that also bars its own citizens from entering the country from Europe, the Middle East and Japan until April 15.

The main airport in Kathmandu sees about 1,500 Nepali migrants leave every day for the Middle East, Malaysia and South Korea to work mainly as domestic and construction workers, and remittances – the money they send back – make up about a quarter of Nepal’s gross domestic product.

But travel restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus, which has infected more than 271,000 people globally and killed more than 11,200, threaten to leave millions of South Asian migrant labourers without work.

Remittances are a crucial lifeline for families in Nepal and other countries in the region, including Bangladesh and India, which currently has more than 30 million people in jobs overseas, according to the International Labour Organization.

Malaysia, where many South Asian workers go for jobs, has shut its borders to travellers and restricted internal movement until March 31.

Qatar, which relies on about 2 million mainly Asian migrant workers for the bulk of its labour force, has banned foreigners from entering the country until the end of this month and Saudi Arabia has suspended all international flights for two weeks.

For the hundreds of thousands of families that depend on remittances for everything from rent, school tuition and transport to groceries and utility bills, the fallout will be harsh, said Ganesh Gurung of the Nepal Institute of Development Studies.

“Lower-middle-class families will grow poorer and poverty will rise,” he predicted.

More than 7.5 million Bangladeshis work outside the country, paying up to $8,500 to go abroad, the United Nations says. Saudi Arabia is the most popular destination, according to government data.

Bishnu Prasad Gaire, president of the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies, said up to 43,000 Nepalis were immediately affected by the bans.

Some of those unable to return home under the ban face scarce food supplies and higher costs as demand spikes, said Yubraj Nepal of the Centre for Migration and International Relations.

“The government of Nepal should think in the line of citizens’ safety not only in Nepal but also those who are working abroad,” he said.

A labour ministry spokesman said it was too early to assess the impact but the government was monitoring the situation and working on possible relief measures.

Despite money worries, most families said their main concern was the health of relatives working in virus-affected countries. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)