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Plight of Nepali migrant workers in Qatar
03:35 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

NEW: A spokesman for the Qatari labor ministry details recent changes to the law

Each week, the bodies of dozens of migrant workers are repatriated to Nepal

The body of one man, Kishun Das, is returned home as his family mourns

Dhanusha, Nepal CNN  — 

At Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, hundreds of migrant workers line up daily at the immigration counters, clutching newly printed passports and boarding passes. Many of them, though, are clueless as to where they’re headed.

As a frequent traveler to the country, I’ve been approached many times by these men, asking me to help fill out their departure forms.

Usually, when I ask what country they’re traveling to, I get the same answer: “I’m not sure.”

They seem weary and lost but still hopeful that they can make their lives better.

This time, however, I’m at the airport to follow up on the repatriation of the most unfortunate of these migrant workers – far too many of them make the return journey in caskets.

Almost every day, the remains of three or four workers arrive back in Nepal from the Middle East, according to Bhola Prasad Siwakoti, the secretary of the Nepalese Ministry of Labor and Manpower. Every other day, at least one dead body arrives from Qatar, he said.

Worst exploitation

“Nepali migrant workers have the lowest per capita income in Qatar,” says Suryanath Mishra, who served as ambassador to Qatar from 2007 to 2012. “They get exploited the most out of all the migrant workers.”

He cites lack of education and technical skills as the main causes.

We are waiting for the body of Kishun Das, who left Nepal for Qatar only eight months ago. The 38-year old was his family’s breadwinner and the father of five children.

His younger brother, Bishun, is at the airport to receive the body. He also works in Qatar and is in Nepal on leave. I ask him why he’s alone.

“We don’t have money to bring other family members to receive the body,” he says. “But they have been calling me every other minute asking for the update.”

His phone rings.

“I’m at the administration filling out the paperwork.” he tells the caller on his phone.

“No, he isn’t getting any compensation.”

With more than 350,000 migrant workers, Nepalis make up the second-biggest community in Qatar, after Indians, the embassy in Qatar claims.

Qatar’s response

When contacted about the deaths of foreign workers in Qatar, a spokesman for the labor ministry said that all workers deserve to be protected against exploitation.

Saad Al-Mraikhi estimated that some 400 Indian and Nepalese workers die each year in Qatar.

“It is desperately unfortunate that any worker should die overseas, in a foreign land, away from their family,” the spokesman said. “But it would be wrong, we believe, to allow the statistics to be consistently distorted to suggest that all deaths in a population of 1.5 million people are apparently the result of workplace conditions, either directly or indirectly, which is the prevailing and erroneous narrative.”

Al-Mraikhi spoke about recent changes in his country, including the introduction of a wage protection system, improved living conditions and increased penalties for companies that violate rules.

“While the vast majority of workers in Qatar are fairly treated, we recognise that a minority are not. That is why we are reforming labour laws and practices,” he said in a statement.

Migration soars thanks to Qatar World Cup

As we wait at the airport, a Qatar Airways plane lands. At 7:40 pm, it is the last of three that depart and arrive every day. Before Qatar won the right to stage the FIFA World Cup in 2022 and embarked on a hugely ambitious, holistic construction plan to support it, it was a single flight a day.

Hundreds of passengers disembark from the plane. “They are mostly migrant workers returning home,” an airport official tells us.

We spot a cargo worker transporting a bright red box carrying the body of Kishun. Even in a country where even a fight between two stray dogs can gather a sizable crowd, coffin arrivals don’t seem to attract many spectators. The scene has become all too common.

The coffin is loaded on to a jeep provided for free by the Nepali government. We follow it on the journey to the family’s village in Dhanusha district, a seven-hour drive from Kathmandu.

“Normally, vehicles are not allowed to drive on this highway after 8 p.m. because of the dangerous condition of some of the roads at night, but since I’m carrying a coffin, the police let me go,” the driver of the jeep tells us.

The Nepali government has eight vehicles designated to deliver coffins. They’re kept busy.

“They call me the coffin guy,” the driver says with a dark smirk.

In mourning

At around 1 a.m., we stop at a roadside shack. All of us eat except for Das’ brother. “I’m mourning. For religious purposes, I need to remain pure. So, I can’t eat anything,” he says.

I see him buying alcohol shortly after.

“I’m too stressed because of my brother’s death. I need to comfort myself.”

Back in Qatar, where alcohol is banned, he and his friends manage to fulfill their needs courtesy of the local black market, he tells us.

“It (the alcohol) is of very poor quality, but that is our only option,” he adds.