KATHMANDU – Pradeep Raj Lamsal, who works in Dubai, was in for a rude shock when his company asked him not to come to the office for at least six months after he was told to stay home without pay in March when a coronavirus lockdown was enforced in the United Arab Emirates.
Lamsal, like other hundreds of thousands of Nepalese working abroad, is preparing to return home as the tiny landlocked Himalayan nation braces for one of the biggest losses to its economy as the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated jobs and dwindled remittances from migrant workers.
“I’m running out of money. I’m in big trouble,” Lamsal told EFE on the phone from Dubai.
He said he had filled a form on the website of the Nepalese embassy in the UAE to enable his return but to no avail.
“The embassy officials are not responding,” said the 30-year-old western Nepal, who has been working for a multinational retail chain.
Lamsal’s crisis has cut off the lifeline to his family of five in Nepal. He used to send them $500 monthly out of his salary of $750.
“Now it’s difficult to manage the family expenses as all income sources have dried up,” he said.
Plunging remittances have threatened small economies of developing countries like Nepal that partially depend on money sent home by migrants.
According to the World Bank, Nepal received remittances worth $8.64 billion or 27.3% of its GDP in 2019, among the highest in South Asia.
However, a recent World Bank report warned that this year remittances could drop as much as 14% or $1.2 billion.
The bank said remittances across South Asia could slump by 22% due to the coronavirus outbreak and a related oil price crash as lockdowns, travel bans, and social distancing have brought global economic activities to “a near standstill.”
On April 14, some gulf countries, including the UAE, urged other nations to repatriate their citizens as the pandemic had hit their economies. There are around 225,000 Nepalese citizens in the UAE alone.
“(Almost) all have decided to return home. I’m waiting for the governments of Nepal and the UAE to lift the lockdown so I can board a plane,” Narayan Bhandari, who moved to the UAE seven months ago, told EFE.
His employer fired Bhandari, a taxi driver hailing from southwest Nepal, in late March. He said he had sold land worth 300,000 rupees ($2,500) to move to the Middle East.
“Now I have to return empty-handed,” said Bhandari, who has depended on the Nepalese diaspora in the UAE for food and accommodation since he was laid off along with two dozen other workers.
No Nepalese workers have been able to migrate abroad since March 24, when the country sealed its borders, an unprecedented halt in migration in at least two decades.
“With the International Monetary Fund projecting a contraction in economies of the Gulf countries in 2020, hundreds of Nepalese are expected to lose their jobs and return home. This will affect the inflow of remittance,” Gunakar Bhatta, the spokesperson of Nepal Rastra Bank – the central bank of Nepal –, told EFE.
The World Bank has said that the economic slowdown is likely to affect remittance outflows to South Asia from the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, apart from the oil crash linked outflow from the Gulf countries and Malaysia.
According to official data, around 1.5 million Nepalese have been working abroad in just five countries: Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait.
This is in addition to the 3-4 million Nepalese in India, although the unofficial estimates vary widely.
“Some employers have already started laying-off employees whereas others have asked them to stay on unpaid leave for some time,” said Jeevan Baniya, a labor and migration expert at the Nepalese think-tank Social Science Baha.
“Even when the lockdowns are relaxed, they are not likely to be employed as a result of the global recession triggered by the coronavirus.”
However, economist Rameshore Khanal told EFE that Nepal should see the mass return of workers as an opportunity.
“The government should introduce targeted schemes for them (…) to make the country self-sufficient in food production. They and their skill should be mobilized in the agriculture sector which is suffering from the shortage of manpower,” he said.