A recent Supreme Court ruling passed quite unobserved though it could have long-term implications for the future of Nepal in terms of, first inclusion and, second, competitiveness in the world. I am referring to the case where the Court found illegal the imprisonment of a German citizen who was detained for almost four years due to overstaying his visa.
Yet what should warrant public opinion and policy makers’ attention is not the issue of lack of compliance with immigration rules set for foreigners visiting Nepal. These are already quite liberal and progressive as there are not many nations allowing foreigners to stay in their soil for five months in a year.
Many have been taking advantage of these regulations to enjoy the country, its diverse culture and traditions while also doing their own bit to expand the GDP through their daily living expenses, including traveling around Nepal. Instead, the case I am referring to is peculiar and perhaps unique because the citizen in question was not a “casual” tourist taking advantage of a generous visa policy.
He was someone who had been legally married to a citizen of Nepal for thirty-five years. Problems arose when the spouse died in 2011. Since the time of death of his consort, the Department of Immigration slapped a daily fine that over the course of the years accumulated to reach $11,950, an amount that was not paid by the husband.
It was a technicality that made, at the end, the difference but the sentence by the Supreme Court also poses an interesting question for many other foreigners who have married Nepali citizens.
The technicality is that the Department of Immigration did not consult with the Government Attorney under the provisions of Section 12 of the Immigration Act before sanctioning the daily fine.
Apart from these legal details, what makes the ruling so important is the fact that the Supreme Court invites the government to reflect if it was the right thing to apply a tourist visa to someone with such a deep bond with the country.
The automatic decision to issue a tourist visa was not shocking at all, unfortunately. Foreign citizens living in Nepal with their national spouses are granted a marriage visa that must be renewed every year and it is a visa that does only allow the right of residing in the country but nothing else.
Hurdles to foreigners
You cannot work and therefore you cannot earn. In short, a foreign spouse living in Nepal is supposed to live like a parasite, without contributing to the development of the country where the couple has decided to live. In the past, many brilliant and experienced foreigners married to Nepali nationals had to leave the country together with their spouses because of this situation.
Why is this happening? Why are only foreigners coming to visit Nepal for holiday being so well regarded as contributors to the national GDP? What about those who decide to live in the country with their loved ones and do whatever they can to contribute to the national development?
There are instances in which the couple, visiting the Department of Immigration, for renewing the spouse’s visa of one of the two, had to answer questions or face statements like the following:
“Why are you here? Why are you not going back to your country and bring your wife? Does your wife have a double passport? You must know that the government is planning some legislation to curtail the rights of foreign spouses living for many years in the country.”
Why are only foreigners coming to visit Nepal for holiday being so well regarded as contributors to the national GDP? What about those who decide to live in the country with their loved ones and do whatever they can to contribute to the national development?
Surely these were very singular cases and should not be characterized to portray the whole civil service dealing with immigration but still they are hurting.
I personally do not understand such rigidity in the rules. Nepalis going overseas to study, to work and to live are also often objects of discrimination and biased policies but all of them long for their rights because, simply, what they want is to honestly contribute, to the best of their capacities, to the development of the nations that are welcoming them.
Because of so many abuses experienced by Nepali citizens, why can’t the country also have a more compassionate and open view of those foreigners not only in love with a person of this great nation but also in love with the country itself?
There are no doubts that, with a more inclusive policy environment, these foreigners could do something good for Nepal, putting their expertise and knowledge at the service of the nation.
Why not take the benefits of these opportunities? Is it because are they a threat to national security or is it because they are going to bring unfair competition to local businesses? None of these reasons could make sense and resonate. There are no real threats created by foreigners marrying locals.
And here I come to the second point that entangles the narrow view of those marrying a foreigner. After all, limiting the rights of a foreign spouse in Nepal is also a denigration of the rights of a Nepali citizen, if you think about it.
Yet perhaps their circumstances and the challenges that they and their spouses face are reflective of a nation that does not really want to open up and here we can make a reflection on the competitiveness or better the readiness of the country to compete in the world.
The country is desperate for foreign investment but the legislation governing the visa of foreign workers is extremely complicated and unfriendly.
Look at Singapore which is often considered as a paragon and an example for Nepal to follow.
It is true that the ultra-liberal policies towards foreign workers has been much criticized by locals and in the last few years the government in Singapore has considerably tightened it up but still Singapore is open to skilled and experienced workers from all over the globe. That Singapore has become one of the most prosperous nations in the world is also because of foreigners’ contribution is undeniable.
Only now the government by led by People’s Action Party (PAP) in the city state is starting to revert by allowing only the top executives with “dream” salaries to be able to come to work and here we are talking about those who are running banks, insurances and other local offices of the biggest multinationals.
Perhaps the fact that there are so few multinationals working in Nepal could also be explained by the way the country thinks of foreigners.
They are very good to spend their money for short but not so good or not so welcomed if they want to contribute in the long term and perhaps do things differently.
I am personally glad that there is almost consensus at granting Nepalis living overseas almost identical rights as those India offers to its citizens living abroad.
There is no doubt that this should be a priority because it is unfair for a Nepali who happened to obtain a foreign passport because of her hard work must renew her tourist visa every month and has to forgo all her rights.
Unquestionably this is a great form of humiliation and denial of basic rights, something that should be amended at the earliest. All in all, hopefully things will change and attitudes towards those coming from overseas not for tourism will also be different.
Perhaps all this could be explained through the lens of insularity and protectionism that characterized Nepal as a closed country for so many years before the collapse of the Rana regime and also for many years following that. Yet it is an issue of “heart” but also of “head”: Foreigners marrying locals should be welcomed and granted economic rights to start with.
It is just fair and just.
But it is also a more cerebral issue because Nepal can better prosper and thrive more when it opens up a bit to attract global talents. Starting doing so with those already living here because of their relationships is the right thing to do.
That’s why the German citizen who spent years in jail following the death of his wife deserves some clemency.
Views are personal.