Shishir Dahal (EV 2010)  

Shishir Dahal

Immigration has a long history in Nepal. Many people living in the Nepali hills migrate due to a lack of agricultural land and poor infrastructure for industry. In other words, migration to improve one’s livelihood is an obligation rather than a choice for many Nepalese. The 21st century is not much different from previous centuries in that respect.

Before India was colonized by the British, major cities in India were a popular destination for Nepalese migrant workers. They were recruited for the work local populations were unwilling to do,  like washing dishes, cleaning, cooking,  … You name it.

In the history of Nepalese migrant workers, the 1815 Anglo-Nepalese war was  a turning point. In that war a well-equipped British army was defeated by the (comparatively small but ferocious) army of the Gurkha kingdom. Impressed by the bravery of Gurkha soldiers, the British started to recruit Nepalese soldiers establishing a separate “Brigade of Gurkhas”  in their army, first – under a clause of the peace and friendship treaty with the Nepali king- in the East India Company’s arm. This was the start of a long military alliance between the British and the Gurkhas which lasts till today. Since then the British army has set up (annual) recruitment camps in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal, recruiting thousands of young Nepalese for the army. In every war the British fought over the past two centuries, the “Brigade of Gurkhas” has played a significant role. Sadly, often these poor Nepalese are intentionally portrayed as  ruthless mercenaries and even cannibals  (see here or  here for some recent examples of biased media coverage of the Gurkhas). Less known perhaps is that many former Gurkhas are fighting against the British government, asking politicians to do something about the discrimination they face(d) while in service and after their retirement. Till this day, this struggle continues for many of them, even if the British government has taken a few measures recently.

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Unlike Gurkha “migration”, mass migration towards the Persian Gulf countries started only two decades ago. Political instability in Nepal due to the Maoist insurgency, combined with the need for cheap labour in the booming economies of many Gulf countries led to a massive outflow of migrant workers. Nepalese workers are mostly unskilled or semi-skilled and typically recruited for construction work. When Qatar was selected to host the 2022 World Cup football, the demand for Nepalese workers increased even more, as they are considered obedient, hardworking and honest workers. And cheap, of course. Unfortunately, these workers have to work under the notorious Kafala system.  The kafala system (‘sponsorship system’) is a system used to monitor construction laborers in Persian Gulf states. The system requires all unskilled laborers to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status. The harsh system allows the confiscation of passports and (illegal) charging of exorbitant agent fees. Qatar has an exit visa system so these migrant workers cannot leave the country without their sponsor’s permission. Many of them thus find themselves trapped in a Gulf country with unpaid wages, working under inhumane working conditions.

To give you an idea, 44 Nepalese workers died between 4 June and 8 August last year, in about two months in other words. Without major improvements, the International Trade Union Federation (ITUC)  estimates that 4,000 workers are likely to die before the first ball is kicked in 2022. Back in Nepal more coffins will be arriving with a “Natural Death “ tag on them, more poor families will be mourning beloved ones and more Nepali hearts will break. When the tournament finally kicks off in 2022, these victims of the so called ‘beautiful game’ will be forgotten. “Collateral damage”, so to speak. FIFA officials along with the Qatari Emir will then be sitting on plush seats in air-conditioned stadiums, made on a pile of dead bodies of these unfortunate labourers. Together with thousands of other “fans”, they’ll be cheering on  “million dollar” boys & men, chasing a ball. Everyone is talking about the likely impact of Qatar’s extreme heat on a few hundred (let’s not forget, ridiculously overpaid) football players, some even want the tournament to take place in a less hot season. Poor Rooney, Ronaldo and Kompany. Football pundits are already wondering how English fans will support their team without bottles of beer, if alcohol is not allowed around the stadiums…

Both groups of Nepali migrants, the  “Gurkhas’ and “FIFA workers” were compelled to work and often die  in  foreign lands,  serving their masters  in the hope that they would be able to send at least some of the money they earn(ed) to their impoverished beloved ones back home. Time and again both groups have been and are being discriminated against, abused and humiliated (and we didn’t even mention the numerous poor Nepali girls and women illegally trafficked across the border with India, to work in brothels in places like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, a sad story which requires an editorial in itself).

Recently, a reputed British newspaper came up with a series of articles exploring the plight of “FIFA Construction workers”. Ironically, far less is being said in British media about their fellow service men, “The Gurkhas”.

So misfortune continues and slavery never ends for  poor  Nepalese. They are raped and tortured in the brothels of Kolkata, enslaved in the stadiums of Doha and humiliated in the barracks of London.

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8 Responses to Country of slaves

  1. Dr Karishma says:

    Dear Dr Shishir

    Thank you for revealing the harsh fact of the era for the Nepalese!!
    But I believe the Nepalese should be happy working and living in the beautiful fertile country of their own. Enjoying whatever little they can grow and earn with their family, instead of running after a wild, life threatening dream. What is the use to you, your family and the country if it ends in an early coffin.
    The people who are running the country should come out of their dreams of bringing in “easy money” from the people who are dying in the gulf countries. Instead they should wake up and come with plans of utilizing the “frozen budget” and give work to these “poor” Nepalese citizens.
    Nepal and Nepalese should wake up before it’s too late. Let’s come out of the “slave” mentality.
    Dr Karishma Malla Vaidya

    • shishir says:

      Thank you Dr Karishma and Dr. Anand Hatgaonkar for your comments.

    • Shishir Dahal says:

      Dear Dr. Karishma,
      Thank you for your comments. It is true ,indeed that we people from this region should work in our own homeland. But as I try to describe in the article , immigration has deep rooted cultural elements within it which seems to be very difficult to overcome.

  2. Dr. Anand Hatgaonkar says:

    Dear Shishir,

    Really great and heart warming article . l appreciate your effort by highlighting the slave labour which is new era problem. Needs global coopration and stern action against these countries.

  3. Taufique Joarder says:

    A heart rending article. I am deeply moved. The situation is not much different for my country Bangladesh. It occurred to me several times that global health needs to focus on the health and human rights of these modern day slaves.

    • Shishir Dahal says:

      Dear Taufique dada and friend,
      Thanks for your comments. Poverty makes slave out of us . Brave obedient and strong. Whichever fits to our masters. In order to eat we accept work that gives no pleasure.

  4. abiy says:

    well written and illuminating editorial.
    thought provoking.

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