Facing myriad physical and psychological stress, at least 579 Nepali migrant workers across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have committed suicide in the past 11 years, according to data reviewed by Migrant-Rights.org.
The data obtained from Nepal’s Foreign Employment Board indicate that death by suicide accounts for 11% of the total 5,511 deaths in the region. Of these suicides, 37% (216) occurred in Saudi Arabia, 27% (154) in Qatar, 24% (138) in the UAE, and 8% (46) in Kuwait. The remaining 4% (25) died in Bahrain and Oman.
Debts, financial burdens, difficult working conditions, isolation, unmet expectations – contractual or otherwise – and lack of social support negatively impact the well-being of migrant workers in the Gulf. With little to no efforts to improve workers’ physical and mental health, experts worry that their situation will not improve anytime soon.
Saroj Prasad Ojha, professor and the head of Psychiatry and Mental Health at Tribhuvan University, says that suicides or mental health-related issues among Nepali migrant workers have become more common in recent years.
“I’ve seen hundreds of migrant workers and their spouses with insomnia, anxiety, and severe depression. These symptoms of mental health illness may drive people to commit suicide if proper care is not given on time. ”
Professor Saroj believes increasing suicides are a “public health emergency” for Nepalis, regardless of where people take their own lives. He thinks that many lives could have been saved if mental health services were available and easily accessible.
Dr. Babu Rajendran, a Bahrain-based physician, told researchers for the Vital Signs project that the most pressing medical conditions facing migrants was depression and management of chronic conditions.
“Suicides are not uncommon in the world. Loneliness leads to it. There are cases of labourers in camps committing suicide. But I find the problem more with those a tier up – the supervisors. They don’t have healthcare, and they are alone. They don’t have community support and have to deal with pressure from back home, as their families don’t understand the stress. They want to go back, but don’t know what to do.”
A Qatar-based mental health specialist who also spoke to Vital Signs researchers and preferred to remain anonymous, highlighted the gendered difference in migrant workers’ approach to mental health. “Females have more confidence in coming out and reaching out for mental health help. Especially those in service sectors. When they have disputes or a poor work environment or bad family situation, they reach out. Filipino women and men are more open to seeking help. Sometimes Indians, but they take their time.”
However, male migrants deal with stigma, she said. “Most of the calls [to the helpline in Qatar] are from men in supervisory posts. They have misunderstandings with families abroad. Families are unable to understand how they deal with it. When the cases appear severe, we refer them for clinical help.
“A lot of the migrants have panic attacks at work. And I ask them how they cope with it. They go somewhere alone. Toilets. Extra minutes to calm down a bit. They cannot sleep because of that. Some have a lack of appetite. They find ways of coping, though they are not aware of what they are going through. Amongst men, the triggers are often doing construction, climbing up very high or having a hard time finishing the work. Then they have anxiety attacks.”
But just as often, the calls are also triggered by labour issues.
“Then the social worker helps them with filing complaints. I have seen a couple who were suicidal in thoughts. If they want to act on it we tell them we can get help, it’s a lot about talking them through the situation, communicating. During the pandemic we received more calls, because the triggers were amplified – salary cut, lack of wages, being made redundant.”
Above: Some of the Nepali migrant workers who recently died by suicide in the Gulf.
The medical opinions echo a little differently amongst the families of those deceased.
Interviews with the families of eight workers who died by suicide confirm that workers were in debt during their foreign employment. They had also reported receiving salaries lower than they agreed to prior to departure or at odds with their employment contracts. They worked extra hours to earn more money, despite the harsh working conditions.
Ram Kumar Mukhiya Bin is one of the many low-wage Nepali migrant workers who took their own lives in the Gulf.
He had gone to Qatar deep in debt and struggling for a livelihood, leaving behind his wife, two children, and ailing parents at home in southern Nepal. He had borrowed NPR 800,000 (USD6,545) from a local moneylender to pay for recruitment fees, travel expenses, and to fund his sister’s dowry. In calls to his wife, he appeared distressed about not being able to earn enough to pay back the loan. Back in Nepal, the moneylender had threatened to padlock his house if the loan was not repaid quickly.
For about seven months, Ram Kumar toiled as a construction labourer, earning about QR900 (USD$250) per month, which he sent back to his family for food, medicine, and school fees. He dug trenches to lay electric wires, often working overtime for extra hours without rest, even in the blazing heat. But could not get himself out of predatory debt. Let down by the gruelling working conditions and low wages, Ram Kumar died by suicide at his labour camp on 16 September 2020. He was 28.
“Had he been able to pay off the loan, my husband would not have committed suicide,” his wife, Devaki Mukhiya, said. “He didn’t want to work there. But what could he do when he had a huge loan?”
He often told his wife that his supervisor scolded the workers if they took a break. In their last phone conversation, a day before he passed, Ram Kumar said his body ached severely due to a heavy workload.
“We’re poor. We had no other way to pay the loans. His salary was minimal,” said Devaki. “Why would he commit suicide if everything was fine?”
Devaki recently paid off the loan with the money she received as compensation from the Nepal government for her husband’s death (NPR 700,000 (Us$5,000) from the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund and NPR1,400,000 (US$11,200) from the Nepali insurance scheme). “I don’t have a loan now, but I don’t have a husband either,” she said. “How can I raise my children alone? How can I take care of my parents? I don’t have property. Where do I seek help?”
"The long-term debt cycle is one of the many factors that pressures low-paid migrant workers working into enduring inhumane working conditions, said Nirajan Thapaliya, director of Amnesty International Nepal. “Cultural shock, loan, family disintegration, and distance — all appear to be associated with migrant workers’ suicide ideation,” he added."
Mahamad Nadaf Masur Dhuniya, from southern Nepal, was working as a cleaner in a majlis (a communal space in private homes where male guests are entertained) in Qatar, when he was found dead, having died by suicide, in August 2021. In phone calls to his wife, he often said, “I have many stressors. I could not earn money as expected. How can I fund my daughter’s wedding and sons’ studies?”
The 41-year-old had previously worked in Saudi Arabia. With no financial progress made in Saudi — his wage was low, and he was rarely paid on time — his wife, Mairul Khatun, did not want him to work abroad any more. But to provide a dowry and medical care for their frequently ill daughter, he decided to go to Qatar, where he was promised a salary of QR900 (US$250). Mahamad Nadaf took out a NPR 450,000 (US$3,670) loan to pay these expenses as well as his recruitment costs.
Mairul thinks he committed suicide because of financial stress.
A few miles away from Mairul lives Hira Devi Kapari, who also thinks her husband would not have died if they did not have a loan. Hira Devi recalled her last phone conversation with her husband a week before his death.
“On that day, I told him that our moneylender had been repeatedly asked to pay back the loan. Then he tried to console me. I guess he was scared of the loan,” Hira Devi said.
Before going to Qatar, Lalit’s agent said that he would get a driving job with a QR1900 (US$520) salary. But according to his wife, once he landed he began working as a construction labourer with a salary of QR1000 (US$275). He had had a total loan of NPR900,000 (US$7,361) taken out from local moneylenders. The family worried that their debt was piling up as the annual interest rate was a staggering 36%.
Lalit was found dead by a tree in December 2021.
The long-term debt cycle is one of the many factors that pressures low-paid migrant workers working into enduring inhumane working conditions, said Nirajan Thapaliya, director of Amnesty International Nepal. “Cultural shock, loan, family disintegration, and distance – all appear to be associated with migrant workers’ suicide ideation,” he added.
Many families struggle to come to terms with the suicides and to cope with the financial repercussions.
Maisaria Tiruwa, from western Nepal, was blind sided by her husband’s suicide. 33-year-old Bal Bahadur Kami worked for five years as a plaster worker in Qatar. He was found dead in his room on February 2, 2021.
“He was a very stoic and calm person. I never thought he could commit suicide. How could I know from here what was going inside his mind?” Maisara said
Bal Bahadur had borrowed NPR 200,000 (US$1,630) from a village moneylender for his disabled son’s medical checkups and household expenses. He had also taken out an additional NPR 60,000 (US$490) loan to pay his recruitment fees.
Before his death, Bal Bahadur and his wife spoke daily for hours. Maisara found him ‘normal’ in their last conversation, just a day before his death. “When I first heard he was no more, I could not believe it,” she said. “He never told me what trouble he was going through.”
Maisara suspects that her husband was worried about his loan and the pressure of raising children on his small income. He earned only about NPR 30,000 (US$245) per month, and Maisara says that he was not getting paid for months. “When I asked him to send money, he would say, ‘The company [SAK Trading and Contraction Co] has not given yet.’ God knows what happened to him suddenly.”
After his death, the responsibility to repay the loan and look after the family now lies with Maisara. “How can I pay off the loan? I have no money,” said Maisara. “I can’t even go to work for daily wages, I can’t leave my disabled son alone at home.”
Rajkumari Batala’s husband, Deb Bahadur Batala, 40, was a construction worker in Qatar. According to his employment record, Deb Bahadur worked for by Jefferson International Trading and Contracting with a salary of QR900 (US$250). He was found dead in his dorm on February 19, 2022.
Because his employment contract expired before he died, his family was ineligible for compensation from the Nepal government insurance scheme. Rajkumari had already sold her piece of land to pay off their family’s NPR 255,000 (US$2,070) loan, but had to take out another NPR100,000 (SS$800) loan from a villager to cover her husband’s funeral and household expenses.
She has no idea how she will pay it off. She had also sold some goats to pay recruitment fees in order to go abroad to work herself. But her two sons, aged 16 and 11, did not let her go. She is unsure of how she will provide a livelihood for her family.
“Neither I could go abroad leaving my sons here, nor I could find a job here,” she says. “My heart cries when I think about my sons’ future, but what can I do? Now, my relatives give food to me; that’s what I eat and feed my son [but] I’m worried. How long can they support me?”
Similar stories can be found across Nepal.
Ishwor Tamang, from Nepal’s Dhading district, was a driver in Qatar. He had been working in the country since 2019. According to his employment record, Ishwor’s sponsor at the time of his hiring was Qatar Tractor & Equipment Co, and his salary was QR1,500 (US$412).
On October 21, 2021, he was found dead near his workplace in Doha. His wife, Dilmaya Tamang, learned about his husband’s death from other Nepalis in Qatar.
Now Dilmaya is deeply worried about her daughters’ future. “All are little. I don’t know how I can fulfil their needs alone,” says Dilmaya. “I want to make my daughters’ future better, but I don’t know whether I can make it.” She has five daughters, all below the age of 16.
She works on the agriculture farm in her hometown in Dhading, where she grows vegetables and rears animals. She has about NPR 200,000 (US$1,635) loan that her husband had borrowed from a villager for recruitment fees.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also exacerbated the workers’ situation in unprecedented ways.
In April 2020, when Covid-19 cases were surging in Qatar, Bine Bahadur Bishwokarma died by suicide near the gate of his labour camp. A day prior, Bine Bahadur called his family in Pokhara, appearing shaken by the results of a co-worker who had recently tested positive for Covid-19. He told them they would return home as soon as cases slowed down.
Raj, who learned about his dad’s death from another Nepali worker, feels aggrieved with the Qatari authorities and the company for not providing details about his dad’s death.
His family is unsure why he killed himself. “I think it may have been the fear of being infected,” his son Raj Bishwokarma said. “Otherwise, my dad was a very strong man.”
Amid the rising Covid-19 cases in June 2021, Tanka Bahadur Bishwokarma, 50, was found dead outside his workplace in Saudi Arabia. His family back in Chitwan, Nepal, learned about his death after two days. His daughter Preeti Pokhrel said, “We were told he committed suicide. But I still cannot believe it. The company didn’t say anything about the death. It was mysterious.”
Tanka Bahadur had worked as a marine labourer. To earn extra money, he would also work as the sewist at his labour camp on his off days and after his shifts.
A day before his death, he appeared normal on a video call but was coughing, says Preeti. “I’m not sure if he committed suicide due to the fear of Covid. I’m struggling to know how he died. Even if it was suicide, the company should have informed us,” she said.
In eastern Nepal, Usha Subba, 23, worries about her four-year-old daughter’s future. Her husband took his own life this year. “I cannot even think what I would do to bring up my little daughter,” she says.
Her husband Anjan Das, 22, was a salesman at a supermarket in Doha when he committed suicide on 5 February 2022. His residence was within walking distance from the supermarket, and he would come there for lunch or rest during the break.
On that day, he went to the room in his camp along with other friends for lunch. His friends went back to work, but he said he would stay a little longer. When friends returned after the end of their shift in the evening, they found him in the bathroom.
“He looked a bit sad for a couple of days before his death. He would speak less. We thought it was a normal feeling for everyone being far from family,” said his colleague from Doha. “I cannot say why he died exactly, but it could have been due to loneliness and depression.”
Anjan began working at the supermarket in 2019, but had recently returned from his vacation in Nepal. There, he had recently bought a piece of land, using his savings and taking a loan from the local cooperative organisation. He wanted to build a new house after returning from Qatar. Their daughter just started primary school.
He had been released from quarantine in Doha just two weeks prior, after having tested positive on his return. His family is unsure if the quarantine impacted or exacerbated his mental health.
Overall, the data indicate that suicide deaths have become more frequent in GCC in recent years. In the past 11 years, suicide was the third leading cause of death among Nepali workers in Saudi Arabia, after natural deaths and traffic accidents. In the UAE, Oman, and Kuwait, suicide is a second leading cause (after cardiac arrests, “natural” deaths, and heart attacks, respectively).
Several studies have also documented the frequent occurrences of mental health problems among Nepali migrant workers. A 2019 study by health professionals mentions that “factors such as high expectations from families back home, an unfair treatment at work, poor working and living arrangements, discrimination at work, social isolation abroad which may trigger poor mental health of Nepali migrants.” Another study in 2021 found that “family problems compounded by constant financial burdens and unmet expectations were the most important factors linked with migrant workers’ poor mental health.”
Krishna Prasad Bhusal, the Department of Foreign Employment spokesperson, heard several complaints from workers about contract substitution, wage theft, difficult working conditions, and minimal receiving salaries. “They expect one thing in Nepal, but they end up facing another in their destination. This kind of situation creates trouble for them. They are subject to both physical and psychological stress.”
Though a growing problem, migrant workers’ mental health issues remain a “forgotten phenomenon,” said Amnesty Nepal’s director Nirajan. “Governments concerned need to invest more to prevent it,” he added. “From local stakeholders to international human rights organisations, all have to pay attention to it.”
Professor Saroj said, “a national-level policy has to be introduced at the earliest to prevent the suicides. Migrant workers from our remittance-dependent country deserve proper mental health care.”
- GCC states must provide psycho-social support to migrant workers, with appropriate inclusions in their healthcare systems.
- Root causes that aggravate mental illness or instigate desperation, including social exclusion, poor working and living conditions, delays in resolving workplace conflicts must be addressed.
- Origin states must improve pre-decision and pre-departure knowledge sharing that would help workers adjust better to working and living in a foreign country. However, the ultimate responsibility for workers’ well-being must lie at destination, with GCC states and employers.
- Employers and their HR departments must pay special attention to mental health of their workers, providing access to counselling where required.
- Embassies of origin countries, where they operate, must provide welfare support for their citizens.