Across the globe, many migrants have been waiting to reunite with their families in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions to prevent its spread.
Mithu Tamang, 30, was among more than 300 fellow Nepali migrants stuck in Kuwait for over two months before a chartered flight was arranged to bring them home on 11 June. It was the first flight to land since the national lockdown began on 24 March 2020.
The returnees were sent to government-managed quarantine centres across the country. Tamang considers herself lucky to be one of the 47 women placed at a quarantine centre set up by Women for Human Rights (WHR), a national women’s rights organisation, in collaboration with the Government of Nepal. UN Women provides personal protective equipment (such as masks, gloves and sanitizers) as well as food supplies for the quarantined residents.
“We are all very happy to be here, as we feel safe,” says Tamang. “All the staff are female and that makes us feel comfortable.”
The Founder of Women for Human Rights, Lily Thapa, said the organisation has offered up its office space in 21 districts as quarantine centres. As a starting point, their office in Budanilkantha, Kathmandu, has been transformed into a quarantine centre.
“Initially, we had 21 people in the quarantine centre, including men. [But] it became challenging to manage both men and women in the same quarantine centre, due to their different needs,” explains Thapa. “So, we asked the Government to [approve this as] a women-only quarantine centre with a female security team.”
Now the centre is fully managed by women. The United Nations Resident Coordinator in Nepal, Valerie Julliand says she is happy to see women’s rights organisations collaborating with the Government to create safe quarantine spaces for women migrant returnees, but more can be done. “I call on the Government to have more dedicated sites or home quarantine facilities for women vulnerable groups,” she says.
As the returnee migrants wait to return to their homes and communities, they also fear stigmatisation.
“My sons live in a rented place in Kathmandu and the landlord and neighbours have told them not to bring me home,” shares one woman.
With increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections among returnee migrants, stigma and discrimination against this group runs high. In addition to the stigma, they see a bleak economic future.
“We need employment opportunities and interest-free loans to start our enterprises,” said Tamang. “I have been working abroad since 2012. To escape domestic violence and raise my sons, I left [Nepal] in the hope of making a living. Although life in a foreign land is difficult, we were at least able to earn decent wages and pay for our children’s education in a private school.”
Tamang isn’t sure where she’ll go after completing the quarantine. However, she hopes to be able to create a livelihood for herself, if she gets some support. “I have sewing skills and if the Government provides interest-free loans, I might be able to establish something here.”
“Most women say that if they could, they would remain in Nepal; they would not choose to work abroad. Why would they leave loved ones, including their children, and live as domestic workers at risk of rape and harassment in their employers’ homes, unless they felt they had no other option,” said UN Women Representative Wenny Kusuma, reflecting on her interaction with women in the quarantine centre. “Plans for the socio-economic recovery of Nepal need to recognise women migrant workers as a central concern. The United Nations wants to partner with the Government to ensure that women returnees have a future of viable options.”