A long way to Europe

…but Nepal's state apathy towards migrant workers, the culture of exploitation and abuse continue

Europe with its labour shortage is increasingly becoming the new destination for Nepali migrant workers but much like in the Gulf and Malaysia, they are being cheated by recruiters and sent to out-of-the-way places.

Some 38,000 Nepalis officially sought employment in Europe last fiscal year, which is about 8% of the total number of labour permits issued that year— a sharp rise from just a few years ago. Many end up in eastern European countries which, until recently, used to be a country of emigrants.

“There are now Nepalis trying to go to Europe not just from Nepal but straight from the Gulf countries, where they are already employed,” says Hari Krishna Neupane from Shramik Sanjal, which advocates for migrant workers’ rights.

The member-led organisation was founded to address the issues of Nepali workers in the Gulf and Malaysia. But over the years it has been catering to a growing number of European aspirants, who have paid traffickers exorbitant amounts for low-paying jobs in little-known East European or Balkan countries.  

“People are seduced by the idea of well-paying jobs in Europe and securing permanent residency there, especially after seeing so many people post videos on social media about life in Europe,” adds Neupane, “They all paint a rosy picture so people are willing to take the risk and pay so much money.”

Croatia and Romania are now among the most popular European destinations for Nepali workers whose nationals are themselves migrating to wealthier western European nations. Since 2019, the number of labour permits for these two countries has soared from a couple of hundred to over 10,000 each year. 

But in the last two years, Croatia and Romania joined the Schengen zone, which allows document-free movement throughout the region’s 29 countries. As such, these two countries have become even more attractive to Nepali workers. But they are competing for jobs in these countries with workers from all over South Asia, as well as poorer neighbouring Balkan countries.

A lot of Nepalis who are not able to secure jobs in new Schengen countries are increasingly shifting to other states that Nepali workers have never heard of, like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Serbia, and North Macedonia. According to the Department of Foreign Employment, over 1,500 Nepalis received labour permits for just these four countries in 2022/23. Between 2021 and 2023, 163 Nepalis received labour permits for Bosnia alone from zero in previous years. 

Nepalis in Europe
A signboard on the way to Old Town in Sarajevo. Nepalis who are not able to secure jobs in Schegen countries are increasingly moving to lesser-known European nations like Bosnia-Herzegovina. Photos: BHRIKUTI RAI

But most prospective workers lack information about where they are going, the reality of the labour market there, and are easily tricked by recruiters with false promises. 

News reports and social media are rife with stories of Nepalis who have been deceived and ended up in underpaid jobs in Europe. But that does not seem to deter desperate Nepalis. This is perhaps most evident by the Nepali young men joining the Russian Army against Ukraine, lured by the promises of high salaries and citizenship in Europe.

“Lack of employment opportunities in Nepal and the lure of getting residence permits in European countries are big factors in the growing migration pattern in Europe,” says Sadikshya Bhattarai, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility (CESLAM), “but most Nepalis are going for low-skilled and semi-skilled jobs, so we need to also think about how they can access social protection there through labour agreements and correct information dissemination to Europe bound Nepalis.” 

But sound policymaking requires information and evidence-based reports which are lacking in Nepal. “We keep harping on about bilateral agreements in order to effectively negotiate for Nepali workers’ rights, but we do not have enough information about these emerging markets,” adds Bhattarai, “we need to focus on carrying out studies to generate evidence, including challenges that could be unique to these corridors, that can lead to better labour agreements and policies.”

The onus should also lie on employers and labour policies in European countries which have benefited greatly because of workers from countries like Nepal, and it is their responsibility to look out for the safety and protection of foreign workers. 

Om Pandey paid a Nepali agent Rs1.3 million for himself and his wife Anita to take him to Sarajevo. 

“Nothing worked out for me in Nepal, so the plan is to go wherever we can get a permanent residency,” he says. “I will do everything not to go back to Nepal again.” 

Nepalis in Europe
FAR FROM HOME: Om Pandey and wife Anita pose for a photo in front of the historic Austria & Bosna Hotel from the siege of Sarajevo 1992-96. Pandey paid a Nepali agent Rs1.3 million for himself and his wife to take them to Bosnia-Herzegovina but his job at the hotel pays much lower than promised. However, he doesn't want to go back to Nepal.


There is a steady rise of Asians taking the back door to Europe, which needs workers, but is unwilling to open its doors too wide to migrant workers. Europe has the largest ageing population in the world, and this year its proportion of those more than age 65 overtook the number of people under 15

This demographic decline, along with the shrinking younger workforce in European countries, who are no longer interested in taking up low-paying jobs in the services and agriculture sector, have resulted in a massive rise in demand for cheap labour mostly from Asia and Africa. 

It is also creating a political backlash. This month's EU elections saw a rise of far-right parties across Europe. Those populist parties campaigned on openly anti-immigrant and often racist platforms.

Sadikshya Bhattarai, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility (CESLAM) in Kathmandu, has been closely following these trends and says EU countries which until recently had restrictive labour policies for non-EU citizens, have also shifted them to address the labour crisis in member states. 

She stresses that Nepal’s foreign labour policy, which is still focused on Gulf countries and Malaysia, now needs to prioritise the welfare of Nepalis in stopover destinations in the Balkans, and initiate government-to-government dialogue to regulate the intake of Nepali migrant labour.

Last year, Romania announced a quota of 100,000 foreign workers, a policy that’s been carried over in 2024 as well — resulting in a spike in the number of workers from Nepal and many Asian countries. 

Romanians are also one of the largest groups of gastarbeiters in Germany, taking up jobs in construction, housekeeping or work in slaughterhouses — the same jobs that Nepalis and other Asian workers do in Romania for far less pay and negligible workplace safety. Romania and Croatia are the latest countries to join Schengen.

In recent years, there have been several reports documenting poor working conditions and exploitation faced by migrant workers in Europe, particularly in low-paying temporary jobs in agriculture. Recently, the death of an Indian farm worker in Italy once again put a spotlight on the plight of foreign seasonal workers. This has led to louder calls to ensure labour rights of migrant workers.

During the pandemic in 2020, the European Commission issued guidelines to guarantee the rights, health and safety of seasonal workers. Earlier this year, Croatia said it was working on amending some of its laws governing foreign workers to ensure they have a better protection safety net, like issuing longer work permits, stricter controls on employers and greater flexibility for workers to change jobs. 

For instance, the introduction of an unemployment period will give foreign workers 60 days to find a new job before losing their work permit.

Charles Autheman, who tracks labour migration around the world, says opening space in Europe’s labour market has also opened doors for exploitation. 

“The demand is such that an increasing number of Nepalis find a gateway to the European market, but that integration is happening by exploiting their vulnerabilities,” Autheman says. “Many are forced to live and work in precarious conditions, and they may not necessarily be receiving the same packages as local workers.” 

He adds that insufficient knowledge about employment standards and legal regulations will continue to make Nepali workers vulnerable to manipulation during recruitment in Nepal, and while working in Europe as well.


Last September, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal convened a two-day meeting to discuss safe and systematic foreign employment for Nepali workers, particularly those heading to Europe. 

Consultations were held in 2019 as well, and the government declared a new 'roadmap' for Nepali workers for Europe through safe and institutionalised channels. Last year, Nepal signed labour agreements with Romania and Germany. 

Nepalis in Europe
Om Pandey and his wife Anita with a friend in Sarajevo.

But beyond that, there has been little progress to streamline migration on the Nepal-Europe corridor, with many migrant workers duped and cheated. 

Compared to traditional labour destinations in the Middle East and Malaysia, the recruitment process for Europe can be lengthy and burdensome. So, many enter Europe through acquaintances or individual agents who might have secured contact with the prospective employer through a complex web of intermediaries. This means there are no government-approved demand letters from the hiring company that can be held accountable if things go wrong. 

Prospective workers need to travel to New Delhi for visa interviews for a lot of these jobs, which adds to the cost. Meanwhile, for employers in Europe, it is difficult to get the mandatory demand verification to hire Nepali workers since Nepal has a limited number of missions in the continent. There are currently only nine embassies in Europe of which four are currently without ambassadors after the recent recall of envoys

“We want to speed up demand letter attestations to ensure that Nepalis seeking jobs in Romania and other European countries end up in decent working conditions there, and reduce the overall cost of recruitment,” the former spokesperson of the Ministry of Labour and Employment Dhandu Raj Ghimire told us in Kathmandu. 

He is now the director of the Department of Foreign Employment (DoEFE), and is the right man in the right place. He already has to deal with numerous complaints about fraudulent European jobs. 

Since last July, DoFE has received nearly 7,000 complaints of fraud, mostly about having to pay high recruitment fees to go to Europe. In 2022, the department filed fraud cases against several recruitment agencies which had duped over Rs30 million from dozens of individuals seeking employment in Europe, most of them for low-skilled jobs.

“Most Nepali workers heading to Europe are going for non-skilled 3D jobs (dirty, dangerous and demeaning), which aren’t vastly different from the jobs in the Middle East,” said Rajeev Pokharel, the former joint secretary at the Ministry of Labour Employment and Social Security.

He added: “We need to ensure that Nepalis entering the European job market are skilled and have some proficiency in the local languages to make the most out of the opportunities there.”


Portugal is another popular destination for Nepali migrants. While official data shows that only 2,000 labour permits have been issued, the number of Nepalis entering Portugal through irregular and often dangerous routes across the Balkan countries is on the rise. 

According to official records in Portugal, there are 23,441 Nepalis, the 10th biggest nationality among migrant workers in the country last year. 

Portugal has been a favoured destination for many Europe-bound Nepalis because of its relatively accommodative migration policies, which offer employment to even those entering the country without a valid work visa and a path to EU citizenship. Nepalis are also attracted by a warmer climate and more easy-going employers in the service industry. 

But all this might soon change because of Portugal recently tightening its wide-open door policy on migration rules. Migrant workers will now need a work contract before moving to Portugal. 

Kamal Bhattarai, who runs the Lisbon-based NGO, NIALP, says Nepal must urgently push for a bilateral labour agreement with Portugal and facilitate sending Nepali workers through regular channels. 

Nepal does not have an embassy in Lisbon yet, although the government decided to send a full-fledged ambassador to Portugal last October. 

“The fact that there has been no progress in opening an embassy shows that the government is not serious about working with the Portuguese government to address this issue,” Bhattarai told us.

According to Bhattarai, there are numerous cases of fraud involving Nepalis in the Portuguese courts, and the opaque recruitment process has opportunities for middlemen and agents in both Nepal and Portugal to fleece workers. 

“Portugal has such a massive labour shortage that it will always need migrant workers,” said Bhattarai, “now it is up to Nepal to decide whether it wants its citizens to find jobs here through cumbersome and expensive routes or make things easier for them.” 

“Nothing worked out for me in Nepal”

Nepalis in Europe

Om Pandey left Nepal in 2010 to work in a plastic factory in Dubai for six years, and saved enough to start a business back home in Nepal full of optimism and hope. But his ventures did not do well, and the Covid lockdown made things worse.

So he paid Rs750,000 to a recruiter to take him to Croatia, but he was dumped in Dubai instead, where he was stranded for more than three months. 

Last year, another agent promised him a housekeeping job in a fancy hotel in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country he had never heard of before. But that did not matter to Pandey, he just wanted out. 

He paid the Nepali agent a total of Rs1.3 million for himself and his wife Anita, and flew to the former Yugoslavian nation. 

When they reached Sarajevo last September, the job and working conditions were not the €700 a month he was promised, but €450 and with no overtime.

“We trusted the agent who sent us here,” Pandey told us, on a park bench just meters away from the hotel where he works in Sarajevo, “Once you leave Nepal, all the promises of a well-paying job and the flexibility we were told that we’d have in changing jobs here really mean nothing.”

Pandey is disillusioned by all the “big talk” about labour migration back home and abroad, counting the hours until the end of his nearly 10-hour long shift. He is now used to the Bosnian stew and bread diet. But he is not sure how long he will be able to stay in this country if the salary is so low. He might have to consider taking the perilous journey across Europe to illegally get to Portugal, another popular destination for Nepalis. 

“We’ve come so far from our family and home because we thought Europe was wonderful and we save money to send back,” he says, walking past families out with children in strollers at the park.  

As someone soon approaching his forties, with loans to pay while also supporting his family back home, Pandey is determined to rise above his circumstances in Europe, which is the third time he has left Nepal for work abroad. 

“Nothing worked out for me in Nepal, so the plan is to go wherever we can get a permanent residency in Europe,” he says. “I will do everything so I don’t have to go back to Nepal again.”

“What to do next?”

Nepalis in Europe
Usha Bhujel (right) as she was returning from Sarajevo via Dubai last week and her 30-day work visa (left).

Usha Bhujel (pictured), 38, from Ramechhap came to Bosnia-Herzegovina because she could not go to Romania. She arrived in Sarajevo on 16 June after paying Rs700,000 for a cleaner job at a beauty salon. But after she got here, she was told her job was that of a nail technician. 

She had come to Sarajevo on a 30-day work visa (pictured). The agent Bimal Titung, who sent her here, has not responded to her pleas. Bhujel was in limbo: unable to look for another job at the risk of overstaying, and not wanting to return because she paid a fortune to get there.

“I am not able to think about what to do next, or about anything at all,” she said last week, showing her Whatsapp conversation with Titung, and the online money transfers she had made, “I took all that loan to pay the agent. How will I pay it off now?”

On 22 June, the day her visa was set to expire, she finally decided to fly back to Kathmandu fearing the risk of being an illegal immigrant.

With additional reporting by Jonas Seufert. This report was made possible with support from journalismfund.eu