Hoping for a Better Life

Day after day over 1500 mostly young people leave Nepal. One of them is Suraj Ghalan, who wants to work in Saudi Arabia.
TEXT: Susanne Strässle – PHOTOS / VIDEOS: Patrick Rohr – 19. May 2016

Every day over 1500 mostly young people leave Nepal. They go to the Gulf States, to Malaysia, Korea or India for a few years on employment contracts. They are determined and have high expectations – but very few of them have any idea what lies in store for them abroad. Nor do they know how to prepare for the challenge ahead to ensure that their labor migration does not become a nightmare.

Waiting in line at the passport office

Suraj Ghalan has been waiting for his papers along with hundreds of others at the Department of Passports in Kathmandu. Now the 21-year-old farmer’s son has finally got it: he proudly shows the new passport he has just received. He wants to go to Saudi Arabia: a neighbor told him there’s good money to be made there. All he knows about Saudi Arabia is that you’re not allowed to look at women there. “What else? Do you have any concerns?” – “What sort of concerns?”

Nepal cannot provide anywhere near enough jobs for its young generation. Over half a million Nepalese leave the country each year to work abroad. Cash sent home by Nepalese migrants working abroad already accounted for 29% of Nepal’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014.

One in two households benefits from the remittances. This money enables many families to escape extreme poverty. But poorly prepared labor migrants face serious risks abroad.

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Daily routine at the Department of Passports in Kathmandu: hundreds of people waiting for exit visas. © Helvetas
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The passport allows you to leave the country. © Helvetas
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Suraj Ghalan at the desk for new passports. © Helvetas
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Got it: Suraj shows us his newly printed passport, with which he is planning to go to Saudi Arabia. © Helvetas
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At least Suraj pays a visit to the Information Center for Safer Migration situated right in front of the passport office gate. This advisory is part of a joint initiative with the Nepalese government which Helvetas is carrying out on a mandate from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). The object is to protect migrant workers more effectively.

The advisers tell Suraj what to watch out for when looking for a serious employment agency. How important it is to officially register abroad. How much better his prospects would be if he could show proof of at least basic vocational training. And where he can sign up for that training.

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At the information centre, determined women and men find out how to prepare and secure themselves for their departure. © Helvetas
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Posters indicate the risks of migration. © Helvetas
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A video in the style of a soap opera shows the wrong and the right way to face migration. © Helvetas
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At the Balaju Technical Training Center in Kathmandu, young people who have made up their minds to accept a job offer abroad are given 30 to 45 days’ basic training. The courses are free of charge; only those who drop out have to pay a fee.

Harka Bahadur Sunar, a 20-year-old apprentice electrician, is learning to put together a circuit this morning. Operation successful, the light bulb on his worktable is burning bright. He is heading off to Qatar soon. His brother and father are already there, he says, and have told him to join them.

Harka’s teacher, Raghubar Lal Joshi, has several years’ experience abroad himself, which is a prerequisite for this job. In addition to imparting specialist knowledge to his trainees, he gives them an understanding of important issues like construction site safety and prepares them for the working and living conditions abroad. They also receive help with their job applications and learn about their rights and obligations.

«The training enables young men to negotiate decent terms of employment and better wages.»

Raghubar Lal Joshi, Harka's teacher

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Apprentice electrician Harka Bahadur Sunar wants to work in Qatar like his father and brother. © Helvetas
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Raghubar Lal Joshi can pass on more than knowledge to the students. © Helvetas
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Sukul Bahadur Kumal and his classmates at the plumbing workshop. © Helvetas
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23-year-old Sukul Bahadur Kumal has opted for a course in plumbing: “I heard from my cousin that plumbers are very much in demand in Kuwait.” He knows how important training is, he says. After completing the course, he wants to visit his cousin on a tourist visa and look for a job there. It’s a good thing his plumbing teacher can make it clear to him right away that this is not a good idea. Not only would it be illegal, but without an employment contract and official registration, the young man would be entirely at the mercy of his employers.

Emergency legal assistance

A lot can go wrong in job-hunting abroad without serious preparation and safeguards. That becomes clear to anyone after just a few hours at the People Forum legal advice office, a Helvetas partner organization.

“My husband is stuck in Qatar,” Ranjita Mehta tells a lawyer, Manju Subedi. “His company passed him on to another one, he’s not getting any work or wages there. And yet they keep his passport locked up.” Ranjita has a little daughter and a sick mother-in-law to take care of at home. She is scrambling to find a way for her husband to finally return home.

A crowd of women and men are anxiously waiting their turn in the hall in front of the consultation rooms. The lawyers will hear every single one of their stories and take whatever action is necessary. Right next door is the government’s official complaints office, where they can submit their petitions. Lawyer Manju Subedi is acquainted with plenty of sad fates, but she also knows how much she can achieve by helping the victims stand up to dubious employment agencies that pocket more than their fair share of workers’ wages, make false promises or fail to deliver on their part of the deal.

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Legal counselor Manju Subedi explains to Ranjita Mehta how she intends to go about repatriating Ranjita’s husband from Qatar. © Helvetas
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A man signing his complaint with a fingerprint before submitting it to the authorities. © Helvetas
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Shelter for homecoming women

Women who hire themselves out as home help abroad are particularly at risk. In most cases they are completely at the mercy of their employers. As more and more women go abroad to earn money for the family, it is important for them to receive training that will enable them to find steady, officially declared employment, e.g. in a sewing shop. Helvetas also provides training for jobs like that, but household work remains the norm.

Many of the women are subject to exploitation, violence and abuse abroad. Our partner organization Pourakhi provides support for those who return traumatized and destitute and don’t know where to turn. Manju Gurung runs the women’s refuge in Kathmandu, where returning women find not only shelter, but also support, therapeutic help and human warmth. She explains how her team finds them:

«Our staff are specifically on the lookout for women at the airport who look lost, standing in the arrivals hall after landing.»

Manju Gurung, head of women's shelter Kathmandu

Sunita (name changed) is one such returnee. She has been staying at the women’s shelter for two weeks. The lady of the house where she worked in Kuwait accused her of having an affair with her husband, she recounts, just because he treated Sunita decently. She was beaten by the jealous wife, her employer – and one day she hit back.

Naturally, Sunita was arrested on the spot. Those who lose their jobs in the Gulf States immediately lose their rights, too, including permission to remain in the country. In jail, however, some of the Arab policewomen actually showed solidarity: “You’re right,” they said. “We know how they treat you.” She then spent months in detention pending deportation and was eventually sent back home and left to her own devices. Sunita is emotionally shattered. In the women’s shelter she finds peace, security and therapeutic care.

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At the women’s shelter Sunita can recover from her awful ordeals in Kuwait. © Helvetas

“The women have been through awful ordeals, they need to get back in touch with themselves,” explains therapist Muna Gautam, who once worked abroad as home help herself. “We talk to them and offer meditation, relaxation and therapeutic exercises, and expressive arts therapies.” The returnees also work in the kitchen and garden there together with the whole team.

Manisha (name changed) is already doing better. She, too, was bullied by her female employer in Kuwait. “After six months they stopped paying my wages,” she recalls. “The lady of the house bawled me out, she threw my mobile in the water and hit me.” Without a passport, phone or money, she had to flee in a hurry. On returning to Nepal, she stayed at the women’s shelter for a few weeks, after which she was able to return to her family. Now she occasionally comes to therapy sessions.

Women can feel safe and secure here partly thanks to Khet Kumari Ghimire. One can hardly believe that 20 years ago she, too, scrubbed floors abroad. Today Ghimire is a security guard, which is unusual for a woman in Nepal – and a godsend for the women’s shelter. She makes sure no unauthorized intruders gain admittance to the premises. But she also protects the women from themselves: time and again she is summoned to keep a despairing woman from taking her own life. Her occupation is more than a job to her, it’s a vocation:

«Women are safe here, I make sure of that!»

Khet Kumari Ghimire, security guard of the women's shelter

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