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A Casket of Dreams: Deaths of Nepali Migrants Overseas

On March 26, 2010

This feature, 'A Casket of Dreams' appeared in the Kathmandu Post recently, one of Nepal's leading English language dailies. Deepak Adhikari investigates the impact of the all-too-common phenomenon of deaths of Nepali workers overseas on their families.

A Casket of Dreams

One drizzly afternoon in early 2008, Karuna Subba of Chandragadhi, Jhapa was listlessly squatting on her haunches outside the Tribhuvan International Airport’s Arrival terminal. Dozens of migrant workers, each of them rolling trolleys laden with heavy luggage, strode past her. Karuna steadfastly waited; she wasn’t there to greet a living relative.

After the flow of passengers from Saudi Arabia died out, a casket was brought out--with the body of Karuna’s husband, Mani Kumar Subba, inside it.

There were no tears to greet her husband. Mani Kumar had died in Saudi Arabia in September the previous year. Karuna had cried her heart out then, at what seemed like a cruel joke: The day before he died, Mani Kumar had called her to say from a friend’s birthday party to tell her that he would be coming home two weeks later.

In the four months since Mani Kumar’s death, Karuna ran from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the employment agency that had hired her husband. She was told that her husband was found dead in a swimming pool, and that it would take a while for the body to be brought back. No more questions were asked.

Scenes such as these are played out daily at the international airport. On an average, each day, two dead Nepalis return in coffins from the much-vaunted destinations for economic migrations. In 2009 alone, at least 600 Nepalis died in the Gulf countries, and in Malaysia. Unfortunately, for the families left behind in Nepal, it is an agonizingly long wait. They run from pillar to post to bring the bodies of their loved ones back, a process which at times takes up to six months.

Why are migrant workers, lauded as the bedrock of Nepal’s fragile, remittance-dependent economy, dying in such huge numbers? Pushpa Bhattarai, section officer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tries to explain these deaths through several reasons: lack of “pre-departure orientation” (which leads to “road accidents”), lack of good accommodations, unhealthy lifestyles, work loads, depression, and the “unbearably hot temperature” which have extreme consequences on Nepalis, who are mostly from the hills.

One of the leading causes of death among migrant workers is heart failure. In 2009, the death of 174 Nepalis working abroad was attributed to cardiac arrest. But there is a darker side to this attribution. Most of those who died seem to have died in their sleep (suteko sutai marne). According to Bhattarai, this is because most labourers work in extremely hot desert temperatures of 50 to 55 degree Celsius, and when their bodies cannot adjust to their air-conditioned rooms immediately; hence, the deaths.

Many deaths are also attributed to road accidents. Bhattarai explains, “In the Middle East, normal highway speeds are around 140 km per hour. Most Nepalis are not used to such speeds and try crossing the road the same way they do back home.” A proper orientation to foreign country-bound workers can prevent this. Many migrant workers drive heavy vehicles and often die in collisions, Bhattarai says. “But these are not the only reasons,” he says, “There have been murders among Nepalis and some have committed suicides due to family tensions back home.”

It may be accepted that death is a part of life too, but for the families of most migrant workers, it is after their loved one’s demise that the real struggles begin. In the Gulf, where labour rights are practically non-existent and the notions of accountability and transparency are still foreign, the process of sending the dead bodies and claiming dues and insurances fall under the duties of the Nepali Embassy in the country. But there is a long way to go for the Nepali bureaucrats in the Gulf to execute these processes.

According to Bhattarai, language is the first barrier. Arabic is the sole medium of conversation. Hence, the Nepali embassy in Saudi Arabia has finally hired two Arabic-speaking non-natives who deal with the companies. According to him, in Saudi Arabia, there is evidence of discrimination between Muslims and non-Muslims when it comes to compensation. “The Saudis are uncooperative with foreigners,” he says, “It also depends on how much power you can wield foreign affairs.” Bhattarai says most migrant workers in the Gulf are not insured, while a few companies that do insure workers are often laidback even in the event of a death. “It’s a constant process of negotiations with them,” he remarks.

Back in Kathmandu, the relatives of the dead make rounds of manpower agencies and government offices hoping for a swift arrival of the body. Applications submitted to the Ministry’s legal section speak volumes of the tragedies that have befallen on the families of the migrants. A gloomy narrative emerges as you flip through the files: someone’s dead son, someone’s murdered husband. In most cases, the family often loses its sole earner. Even after the prolonged process of transportation of the bodies and its eventual cremation, the complicated process of procuring the insurance money and the due salary takes a toll on most families.

One such person is 56-year-old Lila Subedi of Jhapa. Tears trickle down his wrinkled cheeks when he speaks about his tragedy: he lost two sons to foreign shores. In April 2008, Bhim Bahadur Subedi, who had been working with the Al Mojaji Company in Saudi Arabia, died in a road accident. Six months later, in October, Dharma Subedi died in Malaysia. “I lost two sons in six months.”

A subsistence farmer, Lila says he spent Rs. 150,000 to send two of his five sons abroad. Now, after their deaths, Lila has to take care of both families: Bhim left behind a four-year-old son and a 22-year-old wife, while Dharma had two daughters, aged 11 and five, and a 32-year-old wife. Ironically, Dharma, who had been in Malaysia for only three months, had spoken about coming back home for good. Lila had suggested otherwise, as “he hadn’t sent a single penny home.” Dharma was cremated in Kathmandu, but it took four months for Bhim’s body to arrive from Saudi Arabia. The family decided to cremate him in Jhapa, for which they paid Rs. 22,000.

Lila’s youngest son, Pushpa Subedi, teaches at a school in Sundarijal. The 30-year-old now helps his father navigate Kathmandu’s bureaucratic maze: there is insurance to claim, dues to procure. The deaths of his brothers abroad have destroyed the family. “After seeing the death of my two elder brothers, my family will never allow me to go abroad,” he says.