Nepali workers abroad fret over families at home after quake

Some struggling to get permission from employers to return to Nepal

OTA, Japan (Reuters) — For Naren Mahat, a 27-year-old Nepali living in Japan, there was a long and painful wait on Saturday between news of a devastating earthquake and, finally, word from family members cut off by bad phone lines and repeated aftershocks.

"If we were there, we could have helped. It's like a dream. I still can't believe this is happening," said Mahat, an asylum seeker from Nepal's capital Kathmandu, which suffered heavy damage.

"We are so brokenhearted that we can't be there. We can only pray."

Hundreds of thousands of Nepalis live outside the mountain state, many of them migrant workers on Gulf state construction sites.

Thousands of others work in other Asian countries including Malaysia, South Korea and Japan, where they are plugging a chronic labor shortage.

In Qatar, home to an estimated 400,000 Nepali workers, Nepal's embassy worked to help secure exit visas for those who wanted to go back to check on family and homes after the devastating quake that left more than 3,700 dead.

Embassy workers also helped those struggling to get clearance and permission to return from their employers.

"In some areas of Nepal the telephone network is very poor, and it is hard for people to contact their families," said office worker Kumar Karki, of the Non-Resident Nepali Association in Doha.

"Nepalis are scared."

Nepali workers, many of them sole breadwinners for families back home, instead relied on social media sites like Facebook to gather information in the frantic hours after the quake.

Some groups have also begun pooling money, blankets, torches and batteries to send home.

Others considered bringing over relatives left homeless, although visa restrictions made that unlikely for most.

"I want my mum and dad to come here for a few months until things settle down ... but they don't have a visa. We don't have an option," said Durga Gurung, president of the Non-Resident Nepali Association in Hong Kong.

For many, like 27-year-old Mahat in Ota, an industrial town north of Tokyo, the frustration is heightened by the fact that costly flights make returning difficult.

"There is very little we can do, we are struggling to get by ourselves," said Basanta Kumar Bhudathoki, a refugee who cares for new arrivals in a dilapidated two-room house in Ota.

There are more than 42,000 Nepalese living in Japan, according to Ministry of Justice data.

Brian Barbour, director of external relations from Japan Association for Refugees in Tokyo, said the earthquake in Nepal should prompt the Japanese government to reconsider its strict refugee recognition rules.

"This is not a time to be sending people back to Nepal," said Barbour.

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