01/07/2014, 00.00
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Many Nepali migrant workers dying in Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh blames "natural causes"

by Christopher Sharma
Since 2000, more than 7,500 Nepalis working in Arab countries have died under suspicious circumstances: 3,500 in Saudi Arabia alone, 65 since October 2013. Kathmandu launches an investigation to shed light on the deaths. Doctors and human rights groups blame torture and violence against foreign workers.

Kathmandu (AsiaNews) - The deaths of Nepali migrants in Persian Gulf nations are a source of concern for the Nepali government. In recent days, Nepali authorities have begun to investigate the death of Nepali nationals, often as a result of exploitation and abuse by Arab employers.

According to official statistics, more than 7,500 Nepalis working in Muslim countries have died in murky circumstances since 2000, about 3,500 in Saudi Arabia alone. In the last three months of 2013, 65 Nepalis died in the kingdom.

The authorities in Arab states usually attribute these deaths to natural causes, but fail to explain what these "causes" are.

In recent years, many migrants have returned to Nepal from Gulf countries with horror stories about their working and human conditions, reporting violence, harassment and attempts at forced conversion to Islam.

An official with the Nepali Embassy in Riyadh told AsiaNews that Saudi police tend to attribute the deaths to "natural causes", refusing to provide any detailed report on the actual cause of death. Most of the migrant workers are aged between 20 and 40 years.

"We, too, think it is unlikely that so many young people die of natural causes," the official said. "How can a 20-year-old die suddenly without external factors, when witnesses say he had no problem until a few hours before death?"

Indeed, many reports by human rights organisations, Nepal's Foreign Affairs Ministry and Nepali embassies in Arab countries blame the deaths on poor working conditions faced by migrant workers, including job-related abuses, poor housing conditions, physical and mental stress as well as religious discrimination.

Various consultants with the Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE) believe there is something sinister in the fact that Saudi police repeatedly blame the deaths on "natural causes."

"This is something we must dig deeper into. Who knows? The deaths might be cold-blooded murders for organ harvesting, or the consequences of severe torture," said Ganesh Gurung, a foreign employment expert who has conducted extensive research on migrant labour issues.

"It is also possible that the police tag the dead as natural deaths just to avoid investigations or any other procedural hassles," he added.

After viewing many of the bodies following repatriation, he said that most showed injuries that had not been adequately treated.

In view of this situation, "there should be more focus on pre-departure orientation and health check-ups," said DoFE spokesperson Divash Acharya.

However, doctors and human rights activists point the finger at the government, which has repeatedly glossed over the causes of the deaths in recent years, claiming that they were primarily caused by stress, bad food habits and weather conditions, thus supporting Saudi police claims.

For GEFONT union leader For Bisnu Rimal, the main problem is that it is absolutely impossible to have independent bodies conduct independent inquiries.

"No one can get in Saudi Arabia," he explained. For this reason, "We have no other alternative but to rely on embassy reports."

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