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  Understanding the Nepali exodus  


Migration, both internal and external, is a part of life for a large number of Nepalis. A 2009 World Bank study reports that 32% of Nepali households have a member abroad and 14% have at least a returnee. These figures indicate that almost half of Nepali households have direct exposure to foreign employment. But what goes unnoticed is the fact that there is an unprecedented and unrecorded growth in internal migration.

The pervasiveness of migration challenges the notion that Nepal is a traditional and agrarian society. The nature of the households have transformed with the out-migration of large number of men and increasing number of women to urban areas or abroad, leaving behind children and elderly. In many rural areas this has led to feminization of the social and economic life.

One of the key features that define contemporary Nepal, therefore, is the growing aspiration among Nepalis to migrate. The Maoist insurgency in the past, and the uncertainty, perceived or real, surrounding the country’s economic situation, has fueled the desire among Nepalis of all income levels, caste groups and ethnicity to migrate.

The markets in the hills and towns are dominated by signboards or wall paintings of money transfer agencies like Western Union or IME, and manpower agencies brokering recruitment of young men and women into the Gulf, Malaysia or other countries. The money exchange agencies and local banks always have people queuing to collect remittances. The money from abroad helps them manage their household expenses, send children to school, and, if a few managed to save, invest in buying small pieces of land close to the motorable road or construct a new house.

There are increasing numbers of women who are migrating to different destinations like Kuwait, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and Israel among others to work mostly as domestic help. Recent statistics suggest as many as 3 million Nepalis, i.e. about 10% of the total population, work abroad. Owing to the open border, India is the major destination for Nepalis that accounts for about half of Nepali migrants. Many of them are in the Indian police force or army and in service sectors in metro-cities where they are often found working in exploitative conditions. Major labor migration destinations--Gulf and Malaysia--account for about 40% of documented migrants who usually work in difficult labor conditions. The remaining migrate to the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States, Australia and other countries with strong economies. They are the desired destinations for Nepali migrants seeking to earn foreign currency overseas.

Remittances have played a key role in sustaining the rural economy and people’s livelihoods during the Maoist conflict. The scale of labor migration and its contribution to Nepal’s economy is staggering. The official contribution of remittances to Nepal’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2009 was USD 2.7 billion, as measured by the Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB), or 22% of the total. However, with large amounts also being sent outside the official banking system, the actual contribution of remittances infusing the fragile economy could be as high as 30% of Nepal’s GDP. Forty percent of migrant recipient households in Nepal are totally dependent on remittances. World Bank found that socioeconomic progress, or “escape from poverty” between 2000 and 2009 was almost twice as fast for households with migrants than those without. This certainly indicates the potential migration has in poverty alleviation.

Historical Trend

Migration is not a new phenomenon to Nepal. There is historical and ethnographic evidence that Nepalis have long been a mobile population. The first wave of migration began in 18th and 19th centuries when the state policies and agrarian changes forced peasants in the hills to move out of their land and seek livelihoods elsewhere.
The second wave of migration that started in the mid 1980s, accelerated in the 1990s and dramatically increased in the mid 2000s, when the Maoist insurgency spread throughout Nepal. People from hills continued to migrate to India and then to Gulf and Malaysia, not only to earn money for their families but also to protect young men from being forced to join the Maoists.

This is also the period when increasing number of labor recruitment agencies mushroomed in the towns and cities of Nepal to facilitate the migration, especially, beyond the traditional destinations in India. This period did not just see the sharp increase in migration of men and women to various destinations in search of work but also for further education. The migration for education, a phenomenon dominant among young middle class in major cities and town, involve a significant economic investment and capital flight.

Education migration increased significantly after 2000 and along with that flourished ‘international education consultancies’. These recruitment agencies play a critical role in facilitating the out-migration of large number of economically productive men and women from Nepal to the global market. There are 632 migrant recruitment agencies that are formally registered with the Department of Labour to supply the international labor markets with productive migrants from Nepal. Likewise, there are some 1000 international educational consultancies in operation that provide assistance to potential students who want to study abroad.

With the increase in the migration of highly skilled Nepalis, a wide range of Nepali migrant associations began to form in the destination countries. In 2004, Non-Resident Nepali (NRN) organization, an umbrella organization with chapters in different countries, was established to bring together all Nepali organizations, whether cultural, religious, social or political, into a single body. The financial and political commitment of the Nepali Diaspora to support the political process and economic infrastructure of Nepal has taken visible form with the establishment of this and other subsidiary networks.

Migrants, however, don’t just transform economic outlook through remittances. They are also important actors of cultural transmission. Often migrants bring experiences of the wider world and ideas of modernity. Whether it is a tape-recorder brought by a far-west migrant from Mumbai, a flat-screen television brought by a Gulf returnee or a sophisticated smart phone brought by a skilled migrant from the UK or gold ornaments brought by Nepali women workers from Kuwait and Saudi Arab, it shows that migrants are not just workers but also consumers. Learning new languages, skills, forming new social networks and gaining understanding of the wider world are all a part of the migration experience. The exposure to the alien cultures in the host countries broadens their perspective of the world.

However, we must not get disillusioned by ‘development fostered by remittance’ discourse for it only focuses on the flow of the capital from destination to the source countries and overlooks the fact that migration involves flight of capital and foreign currency from the source to the destination as well. Also, there are concerns that such a high level of dependency on migrant remittance encourages higher consumption and significantly raises imports, negatively impacting the domestic economic growth and job creation.

Remittance flow has fostered a closer tie between Nepalis and the global economy. Today even the remotest areas that are touched by road and telecom networks have Western Union outlets. Global economic recession had a minimal impact on the flow of migration in Nepal. Although migration to popular destinations like Qatar and United Arab of Emirates slowed down, a large number of migrants went to Saudi Arabia. Though migration to the Gulf States was down during the recession period, there was no evidence of a large-scale return of Nepali migrants to their country.

The demand for labor migration to the Gulf and other countries is likely to increase due to the boom in the construction, maintenance and service sector in the region. Qatar, the host of 2022 World Cup Football is likely to attract a large number of Nepali migrants initially during the construction phase and later to fulfill the demand for workers in the service sector. As the developed economies of the North are active in tightening their migration regulations due to security, political and economic concerns, more Nepalis are bound to migrate to these destinations.

Not only will remittance continue to be an important aspect of Nepali economy but various service sectors including banks, remittance transfer companies, labor recruitment agencies, telecommunication, real estate, construction and airlines among others will grow with important implications for Nepal’s economy. Because successful migrants and their households favor investment in real estate in market areas, land values will continue to rise in small towns, cities and markets. There will be sharp increase in the relocation of households from rural areas to nearby cities and town. Rural economy will become more integrated with the urban market, significantly changing the characteristics of rural Nepal.

This would mean that remittances will continue to shape the political economy of Nepal. With less job opportunities at home, Nepalis will continue to migrate both within and outside of Nepal. As the entire economy gets overshadowed by remittances and associated commoditization, only the poor households that are unable to send their members abroad will face increased risk of marginalization and destitution.

Sharma is an Assistant Professor and a Senior Researcher at Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, Boston, USA. Since 2007, he has been conducting long-term field research on conflict, livelihoods and social transformation in Nepal.
Published on 2010-12-31 10:16:53
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Understanding The Nepali Exodus
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Great article. My request to Dr Sharma for his future research that might also address my inquisitiveness. What about the inevitable political stagnation that is the bane of labor exporting countries? What impact will precipitous decline in Nepali agriculture have on food security, especially given that none of our giant neighbors are conceivably potential food exporters? And what will it do to family sociology, the inevitable breakups etc? One last one, given my name: why are Nepal´s poli [more]
  - Party Peedit
Jeevan R Sharma has produced a very important note on the migration pattern of Nepal, and rightly elaborated on its impacts. Sharma has not only gone deeper into the economic aspects of international migration, but has also pointed out its social and cultural implications. Moreover, he has also backed up his arguments with reliable data sources as well. In a short piece, the writer has covered numerous aspects of migration - trend, pattern and consequences. Nevertheless, the debate of brain drai [more]
  - Sanjay Sharma
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