Dev Bishwo Karma waited for hours by the side of a remote mountain road in the northwestern Nepali district of Karnali in late May, hoping to somehow find a way home.
The 20-year-old, formerly employed as a hotel worker in the Indian city of Pune, said it took him four days of travel by bus to get there, a harrowing journey with little clarity on what would happen once he arrived in Nepal.
“We didn’t get food or water when we needed it the most,” Karma said. “There were no vehicles for transport.”
Karma is one of tens of thousands of Nepali migrant workers who have flooded back home by land after losing their jobs following India’s lockdown to try and contain the coronavirus, creating a humanitarian crisis that now also threatens the stability of Nepal’s fragile economy. Remittances from overseas Nepali workers like Karma have long propped up the country’s income.
The BlinkNow Foundation, a nongovernmental organisation based in Nepal that is helping migrant workers in Karnali, interviewed several of the returning Nepalis for Al Jazeera.
Many of Karma’s fellow migrants say they travelled for days without food or water, and now that they are back in their own country, do not have faith in the government’s quarantine facilities.
Public health officials warn that the return of Nepali migrants, if mismanaged, could lead to an exponential spread of the coronavirus in the poor South Asian country.
Last year, overseas Nepali workers sent home more than $8.1bn to their families. Remittances make up more than 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), according to World Bank data.
In all, about 7.4 percent of Nepal’s 28 million people work abroad, more than twice the global average, according to the World Bank.
But with the coronavirus curtailing employment opportunities, many of those migrant workers are being forced to return home. Neighbouring India has the largest proportion of overseas Nepalis, with an estimated two million people.