Prem Lama knows the dangers of working for the US government in Iraq but seems completely unfazed. He has been working as a janitor at the US military base in Baghdad this year and is eager to return. Currently, he is home on sick leave with a severe case of jaundice.
"Everyone knows there is a war going on and we are not safe, but it's the same in Nepal, too, isn't it?" says 22-year-old Lama. Lama says he is not too worried about the kidnapping of 13 Nepalis. "I'm a Gurkha. Why should I be afraid?" says Lama with defiantly folded arms, his well-built body dressed in American military shorts. He is proud that by working in Iraq he has managed to pay for his family.
Besides a monthly $275 salary, Lama says he gets other benefits and facilities as well. "Even children are well cared for. There is a swimming pool, tennis court and a small DVD theatre. We feel quite secure working inside the military barrack," says Lama.
Lama was sent to Iraq by a Kathmandu-based overseas manpower agency run by a group of young entrepreneurs in their mid-20s. A source from the agency told us that there is growing demand from young Nepalis who also want to go.
The agency is processing more than 700 job applications for Iraq this year. The source also said there are other agencies helping Nepalis find jobs in Iraq as construction labourers, security guards, cooks and technicians. "I will stop recruitment after we have processed the remaining applications as we don't want to take anymore risk," the owner of the overseas manpower agency told us on condition of anonymity.
"We all want to go to Iraq. The government is more scared than us," says Shyam Jha from Janakpur, who came all the way to Kathmandu to apply for a job in Iraq. Looking at the list of selected candidates, he gets impatient when he does not see his name. "I'm sure it will be here in the next list. I can't return home with nothing," Jha says, sounding desperate.
Nepali manpower agencies have come under severe criticism, and are often accused of tricking and knowingly risking the lives of workers by sending them to Iraq. The agents, however, say they are not the only ones to be blamed. "As long as the job is safe and secure, people don't complain, but when something goes wrong we get all the blame," says KB Rana from Moonlight Consultant.
"Everyone knows the risk and I don't want to just point my finger at the agencies," says Ram Khadga from Jhapa, who is now applying for Iraq after being rejected for a security job in Qatar by Moondrop Agency in Lazimpat. "The money is very good in Iraq, more than double than the pay in the rest of Gulf region," says Laxman Karki from Biratnagar, who is on his way to Dubai to work as a security guard in a supermarket.
Many like Karki are applying for work visa in Dubai, Qatar, Oman or Kuwait and then apply for jobs in Iraq through local manpower agencies when they get there. Promises of Iraq's high salaries don't just attract poor farmers and labourers-Nepalis with good incomes are tempted too. Karki is a wholesaler and owns a number of shops.
Syamden Tamang, originally from Solukhumbu, has already worked in the US, Japan, Korea, Dubai and India but has now set his sights on Iraq. "In fact we don't care where we get jobs, but Iraq sounds promising," says Tamang, who is applying for work as a car mechanic, adding, "The government is not ignorant and it already knows that people are not tricked into going to Iraq."
According to several manpower agencies, more than 10,000 visas for Iraq were processed in the last three months for Nepalis and most of them are waiting for air tickets to fly to Iraq through Oman and Qatar.
(Some names have been changed on request.)