Human flight“It’s not whether migration is good or bad, but how we can better manage it for development and prosperity.”
Nepal’s economy is now a migrant economy, and has brought about a deep socio-economic transformation. There are 4 million Nepalis now spread across 180 countries, and they send home an estimated $18 billion a year through formal and informal channels. These remittances make up a quarter of Nepal’s GDP.
Nepal’s hinterland is emptying. Young men and women are moving to Kathmandu, waiting here to get their papers before flying out. Yet, this is not a new phenomenon. Nepalis have been migrating for centuries, driven by indebtedness to loan sharks, subsistence agriculture, discrimination and exclusion, or to join foreign armies. Many of these push factors are the same today.
According to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2023: Migrants, Refugees, and Societies launched in Kathmandu this week, 184 million or 2.3% of the world’s population live in countries they are not citizens of, 80% of them are economic migrants and the rest refugees. Almost half live in low- and middle-income countries.
Every day, over 4,000 Nepalis leave for jobs overseas, not counting those crossing over into India. For many, it is not smooth sailing. Cheated by recruiters in Nepal and in destination countries, paid less in jobs not in the contract, working for months just to pay off loans. Government efforts to address this injustice have been ad hoc and lack focus.
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But migration is not black and white as the World Bank Country Director Faris Hadad-Zervos put it at the launch event: “It’s not whether migration is good or bad, but rather how we can better manage migration so that it serves as a force for development and prosperity for all countries.”
The Nepali media’s largely adverse portrayal of migration is driven by how ‘news’ itself is defined. Journalists are taught to highlight the negative and the unusual. Selection of what we choose to report has its own bias, and distorts the true picture.
The media’s coverage of criminal mistreatment overshadows stories of tens of thousands of Nepalis who have struggled, but have done well for themselves, their families and their communities. The stories of abuse and exploitation have become so commonplace that the public is desensitised.
This newspaper runs the Diaspora Diaries columns about the struggles and successes of migrant workers. The series is now in its 31th episode, and tries to go beyond the statistics to humanise the lives of workers.
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The migration discourse in Nepal also largely leaves out young Nepalis leaving for higher studies, primarily to Australia, Canada, the UK, Japan, India and the US. Over 100,000 Nepalis left last year, some to never come back. Many Nepalis on student visas are migrant workers. The Nepal government knows this, and so do the host governments – it is supply-demand economics.
Nepal is graduating from LDC status, but nearly 16% of the country’s population is out of the country at any given time. Nepal’s population pyramid now shows fewer children, a youth bulge, and a growing proportion of seniors. The population below 14 years is down to 28% from 35% 10 years ago. Those older than 60 has increased to 10%, up from 8%.
Nepal has to reap the benefit of its demographic dividend, and has about 20 years before it becomes an ageing society. To prepare for that, we need all the nurses we have gainfully employed in Nepal, not in the UK.
Aside from a few new bright sparks, Nepal’s democracy is not bringing up the kind of leadership that understands these challenges. The Bhutan refugee scam shows that the rot is right at the top. The implication for Nepal’s international image and moral standing on the Bhutan refugee issue is incalculable.
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The other type of migration we must start preparing for are climate refugees. Nepalis are on the move because springs are going dry, monsoons have become erratic, and there are prolonged droughts. Climate collapse will intensify this trend, as the record heat wave across Asia in May proves.
Gaia Vince in her book Nomad Country warns of the need for governments to be prepared for global mass migration because it will be too hot for people to survive where they live. For us in Nepal, this means being prepared for people moving back up to the mountains from the Tarai in the coming decades.
It may be too much to ask the present crop of politicians to think that far into the future when they cannot even address the immediate concerns of migrant workers including abuse and exploitation of vulnerable aspirants, reintegration of returnees into society, incentives to come back to invest their savings and make the best use of skills gained abroad in productive sectors for job creation. But there may be hope in the next generation of technocrats.
As Prajwal Sharma of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) said at the report launch: “Nepal can reap the benefit of overseas employment only by investing in skills and building human resources, and with the smarter investment of remittances through the promotion of entrepreneurship, and efficient mobilisation of skills and knowledge of diaspora to ensure brain gain.”
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