Even in midst of political and social upheaval, the Middle East and Gulf states still continue to attract thousands of migrant workers from South Asia, including workers from Nepal. Every year thousands of young people seeking better opportunities arrive in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait. Some are even naive and desperate enough to try their luck in Iraq.
Nepal’s economy depends on these migrant workers. According to the renowned economist Bishwambher Pyakuryal “the contribution of remittances to GDP remained at 17.4 percent” at the end of 2008. “Its share in total foreign exchange earnings increased from 36.6 percent in 2003/04 to 46.7 percent in 2005/06 at a time when the corresponding share of exports dropped to 29.4 percent in 2005/06 from 34.5 percent in 2003/04.” The fact that Nepal ranks as the fifth largest remittance receiving country in the world further proves just how indispensable migrant workers and their contribution really are.
These migrant workers are mostly low skilled and lack proper language skills in Arabic or English. Desperate and poor, they are highly vulnerable to abuse and neglect.
Every week, newspapers in Kathmandu carry stories of workers denied their salaries, forced to live in harsh conditions and sometimes subject to physical abuse. The situation of women workers is even more alarming: numerous incidents of violence against Nepali women working as maids and hotel staff have been reported in the past and still continue to appear.
The lack of financial and diplomatic resources and, in many instances, the lack of political will has hampered the Nepali government’s efforts to protect migrant workers and their rights. As Nepal has very cordial relations with these host nations and the country depends on the remittances sent home by the workers, the government often seems helpless to serve the interests of its own people.
Fortunately, the explosive growth in social media and information technology is now filling the gap left by the government’s apathy and inability. Without sophisticated foreign desks and deep pockets, Nepali media is utilizing social media and blogs to improve news coverage of migrant workers. Their efforts in keep the issue alive are commendable.
Kantipur, Nepal largest selling Nepali daily, has a weekly Qatar edition. This has improved coverage of migrant workers’ issues and has also helped organize Nepalis living in Qatar and elsewhere in the region to protect their interests. Stories from blogs/websites operated by local Nepali organizations have been covered by Kantipur.
Social media is also vital in organizing migrant workers and raising awareness among them about their rights and where they can go to get help. Sites like Nepal Qatar Online and Nepal Arab.com provide information about the nearest embassy, Nepali organizations and local government offices where workers can seek help if needed. They also act as a forum where members can discuss personal and social issues, creating social networks and support. These websites and blogs are also active in organizing cultural and literary events.
Compared to the diplomatic arm of the Nepali government in these host countries, local organizations and their social networking outlets like these blogs have proven to be much more efficient and also much quicker in responding in times of need. They act as a bridge between the worker and the embassy, and need to be nurtured and encouraged by the government as part of their migrant workers policy.
The Citizen Journalists and Activists
To understand the role of citizen journalists and activists in promoting migrant workers’ rights and welfare, let’s look at Migrant-Rights.org. This blog launched by Mid East Youth has established itself as the major source of information for various issues related to migrant laborers working in the Middle East. Recently, they were selected as the Best Blog by Deutsche Welle in their annual worldwide blogging competition. They amplify news on migrant rights and call for change; and their influence online has brought many activists and concerned citizens to follow migrant rights stories and share them among friends.
At Twitter, activists like Israeli Elizabeth Tsurkov and Nepali journalist Deepak Adhikari often re-tweet or discuss stories from Migrant-Rights.org; thus strengthening the message while also increasing the audience. At Facebook too, stories from Migrant-Rights.org are shared and distributed. All this social networking helps raise awareness among a wider audience who see themselves as not being part of the migrant rights debate. Thus it works towards creating a critical mass of citizens spread across the world who will provide the necessary push on the migrant rights issue.
The success of Migrant-Rights.org and a number of Nepali blogs and websites based in the Middle East shows the power of social media in pushing social causes. It is time for the Nepali government and the concerned authorities of the host nations to implement social networking and media partnership as part of their migrant workers policy. Inexpensive and efficient, social media avenues can accomplish much more than lumbering government institutions and they can also harness the possibilities offered by an engaged global audience.