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Interview | Nepal is our home. When we want to return, don’t make us feel like second-class citizens.

Nepalis who travel to Europe throw away their passports as soon as they enter European territory.

Kathmandu: Portugal is one of the major destinations in Europe with a large number of Nepali people living and working there. What is the status of Nepalis there? What are the major challenges they face? The DMN News’ Monica Lohani spoke to Umesh Kumar Khadka, who is the president of NRNA’s National Coordination Council, Portugal.

How many Nepalis are currently living in Portugal and what are the main problems they are facing? 

There is no specific data about the number of Nepalis living here but around 60,000 Nepalis are estimated to reside in Portugal. They usually face two major problems here. Most Nepalis who come to Portugal lack proper skills. The country has many opportunities but Nepalis who come here do not have the required skills, making them lose the possibility of getting jobs. Agriculture-related jobs such as plucking fruits and packaging are some jobs Nepalis can easily do in Portugal as it does not require much skill. This only takes two days to learn. But fruit plucking is seasonal. Because of this many Nepalis have become unemployed now. Nepalis who are living here for a long time have their own businesses or restaurants. They have even moved to other countries. But the newcomers suffer due to lack of skills. 

Another existing issue is regarding the passport. Nepalis who travel to Europe throw away their passports as soon as they enter European territory. Many Nepalis are unemployed because they fail to show their original passports. Those Nepalis traveling to Bulgaria, Serbia and similar countries illegally enter Portugal and throw away their original passports for fear of getting caught and being sent back to Nepal.  

You talked about skills. What kind of skills are required in Portugal for Nepalis in the job market? 

Nepalis are almost on the top rank when it comes to agriculture and agricultural production in Portugal. As I said, these fruit plucking and packaging are seasonal jobs that last around seven months. In the remaining months, Nepalis here have no job. Cooks, drivers  and construction workers have so much scope here. There are so many people required in construction jobs here but Nepalis who come here do not have any skills needed for the construction sector. Driving is another skill but a Nepali license is not valid here. Language barrier is another big issue. The new generation of Portuguese speaks English but the older generation only speaks Portuguese, which is quite difficult for Nepalis to learn. It might take a year or two for them to learn the language. 

The government of Nepal has taken the decision to establish an Embassy in Portugal but it has not materialized yet. What may be the reason in your view?

The delay is due to the government of Nepal. All the agreements have been made from both sides. The recent change in the government may also have caused the delay. The Nepal government has already appointed the ambassador but accommodation, security and other necessary preparations after the appointment in Portugal are yet to be settled. The government should have considered all these aspects beforehand. Where will he stay? In the hotel? In the NRNA office? We would be happy to assist but there are a lot of other factors. That said, this is a G2G (government-to-government) issue and we cannot exactly say why the embassy has not been set up yet. There might be political matters involved, in which we do not have a say.

It is sometimes said that since we already have an embassy in Spain, we don’t need one in Portugal.   

The one in Spain should have been in Portugal actually. Portugal has around 60,000 Nepalis whereas Spain has around 10,000 Nepalis living there. Spain is a big country, around 10 times bigger than Portugal. But it is difficult to go to Spain from here. The ones who come to Portugal throw their passport and get stuck here. Those who have residency can go to Spain and renew their passport. But those who throw away their passports can’t cross the border and travel to Spain. The embassy in Spain has extended support and is helpful. But if the government wants to work for Nepalis, an embassy is needed in Portugal but if Nepal wants to establish an embassy for foreigners, the one in Spain is fine because Spanish tourists traveling to Nepal are huge in number. Maybe this is the reason Nepal gets a lot of Spanish tourists every year. 

In a different context, how serious is the human trafficking issue in Europe in recent times?

Human trafficking was not even an issue some years ago. But suddenly it has become a serious concern in Europe. Like Nepalis go abroad seeking job opportunities, Portuguese also go to other countries for better jobs. Portugal has over 100 million people. Around four million of them go to countries like Germany, France, UAE, Luxembourg, and the USA for work. Those Nepalis who come from Nepal legally get their residency card here in a few months. But those coming from Romania, Serbia and Cyprus illegally made this trafficking issue worse. 

In my opinion, around 100 Nepalis who come to Europe through illegal paths through agents of traffickers get trafficked every day and they have no documents either. It’s a scary situation here. As per my knowledge, within these 10 months, 22 Nepalis have died, four by committing suicide. Unemployment is the main reason. They come here dreaming big. Without getting a residency card, they do not get a good job. The document shows they are going to Croatia or Serbia but they enter Portugal. In the Nepal government’s record, the person is in Croatia, but they are in Portugal. Portugal’s passport is ranked 5th strongest in the world, another reason why Nepalis want to come here. Let’s hope that these problems will be resolved after the establishment of the embassy in Portugal.

Like in other institutions, politicization has become a big issue in NRNA as well. What is your take on this?

NRNs should stay independent and not get involved in the political parties. NRNA as an independent organization should stay outside the periphery of the political party. But as things stand, political affiliation is stark among the members in NRNA. One can easily say which member belongs to which political party. If one NRN belongs to one political party and another NRN follows another political ideology, they are not receptive to each other’s ideas. Also, there is a huge gap between elite NRN and normal NRN. When the elite ones leading the central NRNA have both power and position it gives them direct access to the central authorities of the Nepal government like the Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister. Hence, it is the power, position, and the power to gain direct access to the government that is creating all these issues. 

In your view, how effective has NRN citizenship been for the NRNs?

The government has been able to fulfill some demands of NRNs with NRN citizenship. However, it makes us feel like second-class citizens in the country of our roots. There are still so many limitations and restrictions in NRN citizenship. For instance, NRNs cannot be a part of the government and they cannot vote. This goes against our slogan ‘Once a Nepali, always a Nepali’. 

That said, NRN citizenship has also given us some opportunities. For example, we can now invest in Nepal. I have not taken the NRN citizenship but I have heard from those who have taken the NRN citizenship say that it has not empowered them in the real sense.  

What can Nepal expect from NRNs? 

Everyone who leaves Nepal and goes to a foreign country is not NRN. We cannot put all of those leaving Nepal in one basket and call them NRNs. Those Nepalis who migrate for job opportunities, send their earnings home, and return to Nepal in some years are not NRNs. Nepalis going to Dubai and Qatar will return home one day. The remittance Nepal gets from these countries is more than from the Nepalis living in the US or Australia. This is because Nepalis living in the Western countries will invest their capital in the country of residence such as the US and Australia. 

Countries like the US, Australia and the UK now have their fourth generation of NRNs. Even Portugal has a second generation of NRNs. Some Nepalis have been living in Portugal for 30 years now. Their second generation is also here in Portugal. The irony is their third generation or the next generation will not know Nepali because they will be born and brought up here. The skill and the capital we have gained all these years can be invested in Nepal. But, for this, Nepal should create a favorable environment and opportunities for us to invest our skills and capital. Some Nepalis here want to return to Nepal but for that a favorable environment should be created. What we earn here is not big but the same money is huge for Nepal. For example, with 100 million rupees investment, much can be accomplished in Nepal, while in Portugal you could only run one good restaurant with that money.  Nepal is our home. We are children of mother Nepal. When we want to return, please don’t make us feel like second-class citizens.

To conclude, what do you suggest that the government of Nepal should do to address the issues of NRNs?

I request the Nepal government to make the government documentation process easy and accessible. I  further request the Nepal government to solve the passport issue and allow those Nepalis who do not have a passport to return home. This is one help we really need from the government’s side at the moment.