The migration myth

Moving beyond anecdotes to pinpoint push factors


Nearly 900,000 Nepalis left the country last year to work or study overseas, making it the largest mass exodus of Nepalis in Nepal’s history. 

Except for during the Covid shutdowns, the number of Nepalis going overseas has increased every year for the last decade. Most leave for jobs in the Gulf and Malaysia, or to study in US, Australia, and Canada

The accepted reasons for outmigration are: Nepal failing to reap its demographic dividend, lack of employment, and the lack of economic stimulation. Most analysts conclude that bad governance, corruption, and the lack of opportunities are the reasons behind this mass migration. 

These conclusions are based on assumptions, anecdotal evidence, and the blame game in Nepal’s political leadership. But commentary based on limited research and extrapolated inference has its limitations and does not help in a broader understanding of something that is as complex, comprehensive, and multifaceted as migration.

The discourse surrounding outmigration from Nepal is largely reactionary, and needs more nuance. 

For example, many young people cite the impact of poor governance as the main reason for wanting and choosing to leave. Yet many Nepalis who actively benefit from Nepal’s political and economic structures are also among those with passports and boarding passes at Kathmandu airport.

People who benefit from the status quo, and those related to the business-political class, those already earning decent incomes or own real estate and have a high standard of living are also sending their children to study abroad.  

Read Also: Nepal’s hard working students overseas, Sonia Awale

The idea that all young Nepalis choose to go abroad due to a lack of opportunities within Nepal must be put to the test. A recent study by IIDS showed that Nepal’s IT exports exceeded $500 million in 2022, creating more than 66,000 jobs. The IT sector made up 20% of all exports, contributed 1.4% to Nepal’s GDP and accounted for 5.5% of the foreign exchange earnings.

Rapid advances in information technology means qualified Nepalis need not leave the country for jobs overseas. This is true for some other sectors as well.

In the meantime, while hundreds of thousands of people leave Nepal to work for menial unskilled jobs in the Gulf or Malaysia, there is a widespread labour shortage within Nepal. 

My survey in Dolakha showed there was plenty of work available in the villages, but there was no one to do them despite wages having increased.

The scope of development and employment across rural Nepal has widened after federalism. Young Nepalis who have chosen to stay back in Dolakha, for example, say that they can easily earn Rs50,000-Rs60,000 a month farming, construction, or livestock. Salary levels nearly commensurate with what they would earn toiling in the desert.

They would also not have to take loans to pay recruiters, and for tickets and other pre-departure documentation. Working at home would mean they save most of what they earn.  

Read Also: Migration not a wish, but necessity for Nepalis, Shristi Karki

It may be human nature, or a characteristic of Nepali society to follow the herd rather than undertake to do something risky. This appears to be true for migration, which has gone from being a necessity to becoming a trend. 

However, someone’s decision to migrate is not only influenced by what is happening within the family, community, and country, but also by global structures and circumstances. Technology, social media, and consumer habits have perpetuated a culture of instant gratification, whereby it is tempting to gamble on improving one’s living standard quickly to make up for even minor personal and professional setbacks.  

The youth are giving up jobs even in banking and finance which were previously considered popular career choices. New entrants in banking, for example, may give up their jobs if they miss one promotion, choosing instead to try their luck outside Nepal.

It is therefore important to look at the context of migration through multiple political, socio-economic and sociocultural angles so that we do not form an inaccurate stereotypical assumption.

We also need to recognise that the pull factors of migration are global, and extend beyond the lack of opportunities within Nepal, the country’s political state, economic structure, or socio-cultural circumstance. The study, discussion, research and solutions for outmigration must therefore extend beyond easy suppositions, frameworks and administrative tools. 

Could the current migration discourse be influenced by media magnification of factors, and is public opinion being shaped by the competition for content that offers conclusions? And is this need for quick fixes in turn driving half-baked policy interventions?

Brabim Bikram Thapa


Brabim Bikram Thapa is pursuing Mphil in Anthropology at Tribhuvan University.