Nepal has to plan for the day when more migrant workers start coming back, so they can contribute to the economy


In the past year, about 260,000 Nepali workers flocked to Malaysia to work in factories, service stations, and palm and rubber plantations. A similar number were  preparing to go in the coming 12 months.

But the Malaysian government has abruptly capped the proportion of foreign workers in its labour force to 15%, and will stop issuing worker visas after May.

Making up more than one-third of all departures last year, Malaysia is the top overseas labour destination for Nepalis, An estimated 500,000 are working there. Now, many Nepalis may choose to overstay,  and join the ranks of their undocumented compatriots. 

The reliance of Nepal’s economy on remittances is precarious. West Asia has nearly 2 million Nepali workers, and is chronically gripped by regional tension. A populist anti-migrant wave is sweeping Europe. Donald Trump has vowed to deport illegal immigrants if re-elected. 

How will Nepal accommodate a future surge of returnees? The National Planning Commission, the Labour Ministry and other branches of government must start preparing for this contingency, if they have not already. Maybe, just maybe, they could turn a potential disaster into a dividend.

Short, medium and long-term strategies need to be in place to make the best of returning migrants. Most immediately, returnees from Malaysia and those affected by its visa curb need to be accommodated before they start knocking on the doors of recruiters for jobs in the Gulf or Europe. 

The homecoming of semi-skilled Nepalis with overseas exposure can be turned into a national asset. Many returnees have worked in modern agriculture and factories. They have picked up and honed new skills at construction sites, and they have excelled in the service industry. 

Many will be returning with hard-earned savings and dreams of running their own enterprises. Local governments must provide them support to re-assimilate, encourage their entrepreneurial spirit, and identify outlets for their skills and investment.  

When the subject of migration and remittance comes up, Nepali politicians and media tend to forget that there are 2.5 million Nepali workers in India. Most are seasonal migrants who cannot even afford recruitment fees to ‘manpower’ agencies.

And as we saw during the Covid lockdowns, hundreds of thousands of Nepalis were sent back from India under dire circumstances, harassed and stigmatised on both sides of the border. Nepalis in India may not remit as much money as from elsewhere, but they constitute the largest population of Nepali migrants abroad. 

Construction jobs in Kathmandu and other cities are increasingly filled by domestic migrants from the mountain districts. Interestingly, many semi-skilled jobs in construction in Kathmandu Valley are taken up by Indian migrant workers. Nepal, in fact, is the seventh-largest source of remittance for the Indian economy. 

That statistic alone proves that there is work for Nepalis in Nepal itself. If the economy picked up, if Nepalis got more meaningful wages, if labour rights were protected, if they got help to start up businesses, many would prefer to stay in Nepal.  

That is a lot of if’s, for sure. But it is possible with the right policies and the political will to implement them. 

Last week, we published an investigation into Nepali recruits into the Russian Army. At least 39 Nepali soldiers of the estimated 2,000 who enlisted have been killed in action on the Ukraine front. Families in Nepal are demanding the return of their bodies. After loopholes in migration routes were uncovered last year, the government banned work permits for Russia. 

Inexplicably, on Wednesday the Ministry of Labour re-opened labour permits for Russia knowing fully well that many will end up enlisting into the military again. Labour Minister Dol Prasad Aryal, who already has a conflict of interest because of his involvement in recruitment and remittance agencies, has to explain why his office has allowed this at a time when his cabinet colleague Foreign Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha is demanding that Russia send Nepali soldiers home.

Successive governments in Nepal have treated foreign employment as a safety valve, and a cover for their failure to kickstart the economy. Worse, many politicians and bureaucrats are in cahoots with recruiters and profit from the blood, sweat and tears of desperate Nepalis. 

A Marshall Plan for investment in infrastructure would be the most effective long term strategy. It would produce jobs during their construction, and generate more multiplier employment downstream as connectivity, a revived agro-economy and cheap surplus energy revs up the economy. 

Sonia Awale