Humanitarian catastrophe waiting to happen

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Kathmandu

They slept under bridges, even in jungles, in the heat, stranded with nowhere to go. Pregnant woman slept on the roadsides.

They couldn’t buy food or water because of the fear and stigma that they might have ‘the coronavirus’.

No one offered them food.

Some managed to walk to their destination, while some made their way home on buses after paying double the fare.

Many were left stranded on roadsides as their municipalities wouldn’t allow them in until they were tested for coronavirus. But Migrant workers returning from India preparing to spend a night out in the open in Subakuna, Surkhet on May 26 quarantine camps were not set up for them.

This was (is) what thousands of Nepali migrant workers eking out a living in neighbouring India faced after making their way home to Nepal due to the lockdown clamped in both countries to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The welcome they received was far from an empathetic one.

There are children including newborns, pregnant women and elderly among them.

American philanthropist Maggie Doyne witnessed it all in the past 10 days in Karnali Province where she has spent 13 years doing humanitarian work. She visited Bheri Babai, Banbasa, Mahendranagar, Nepalgunj and Gaurifanta — all western borders, and saw just how severe the situation is.

The founder of Kopila Valley Children’s Home in Surkhet and 2015 CNN Hero feels these returnees have not been given the respect of a safe journey home.

“I can’t ignore these people,” she shares in a telephonic interview with The Himalayan Times.

“We have to respect them and welcome them home.”

Doyne and her foundation BlinkNow have stepped up to act in a situation that she calls beyond shocking. “It is a humanitarian situation that I have never seen before,” she stated.

Doyne, who not only feels for the migrant workers but their stories too, says, “Oftentimes we forget their stories. The fact that they are Nepalis and hold up the entire economy of Nepal quite literally — 32 per cent of what we know is what these people bring in. They are hard working. They are away from their families and villages for eight months a year.”

Her focus is to shed light on the humanitarian crisis that we are in and help these migrant workers in the process.

Describing the migrant situation right now, she says, “A lot of the migrants are coming home empty hand. Many of them are daily wagers — they had to survive in India for two-and-half to three months without salaries. For a family already living close to the poverty line, that is really difficult.

A lot of them gathered all the resources that they had to get home.

So we are seeing a people who have absolutely no money.”

She points out, “We are talking about a massive flow of migrants.

Data shows that in one border alone (Gaurifanta), there has been flow of nearly 50,000 migrants over the course of a week.”

And they are coming home hungry and thirsty.

“Coming home and not even being welcomed with a bottle of water. It was devastating. Human dignity was completely gone,” she described the scene. “It’s hot. I could barely manage out there.”

If they are not given food, water and the basic dignity, she points to other problems brimming — an agitation among a people who are upset with how they are being treated.

And she says, “This is not right. We have to protect our migrant workers.”

The quarantine camps that she visited in the Karnali area “are not up to WHO standards. They are far from it” she reveals.

Doyne calls the condition inside these camps the worst. Basic necessity like soap is lacking, no food and water, they are dirty, people are intermingling, no social distancing here.

“The condition of the camps is so bad that people will die,” she points out adding, “They are breeding grounds (for coronavirus) — there is 90 per cent transmission rate at the camps.”

Not just this, there is also a lack of testing kits to test the returning migrant workers.

“A few Rapid Diagnostic Tests are being done — we are talking about a few hundred tests per tens of thousands of people. And RDTs are not reliable,” she informs.

Doyne and her team have been distributing food packets, water, and mobilising people to help the returnees return home with dignity. She has managed to secure face masks, mattresses, toilet cleaners, sanitary pads, sanitisers among others for the quarantine camps from the funds donated to her foundation.

Doyne has been highlighting the issues and plight of migrant workers through her social media platform to get as much help as she can for them.

Many are spreading her message, while many organisations and volunteers have come forward to help her.

“The Nepali youth are showing up. They are only the ones who are showing up, cooking and packing food,” she shares.

She is also happy to see grassroots movement taking place at the borders and volunteer groups from all over the country making meals and feeding returning migrants entering their country. “It has gotten better,” she shares.

However, she stresses this is not enough, much more needs to be done — from the government to everyone else, all of us have to come together if we are to survive this.

“If people will not come together and solve this, a lot of people are going to die.

A lot of people will not die of coronavirus, but due to starvation, hunger and not having access to the most basic of human needs,” Doyne warns.


A version of this article appears in e-paper on June 7, 2020, of The Himalayan Times. 


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