Nepali migration in the 2020s

Amidst a global pandemic, the 2oth International Migrants Day is a time to plan well for the coming decade

The 20th International Migration Day on 18 December in the midst of the pandemic, with its disproportionate impact on migrants demands retrospection. We need to widen our time horizon to the last decades to see how far we have come and review the lapses along the way. We also need to focus on the virus-ridden year that is drawing to an end.

Both time frames are intricately connected. Many lapses in the last 20 years in governance have had an acute, amplified impact on migrants this year. Covid-19 magnified the weaknesses and highlighted achievements that helped migrants cope better.

Communication was critical during the pandemic as that made the long hours of waiting at labour camps, quarantine areas, and even isolation centres bearable. Smart phones have empowered migrant workers, given them the opportunity to be their own storytellers.

In this paper, we reported stories of migrants who received support after they live streamed on Facebook upon facing apathy from the authorities. The Malaysian Embassy’s weekly Facebook live programs answer queries of migrants need to be made the norm.

We step into the 2020s knowing that technology has transformative power in migration governance. An example of this is the Department of Foreign Employment’s (DOFE) recent move to allow the renewal of labour approvals and acceptance of foreign employment fund contributions online.

Abdul Sattar, a pioneer recruiter with over 40 years of experience, shared with me the struggles of obtaining job offers abroad in the early days. Nepalis then did not have access to the Gulf employers and they assumed Nepal was part of India. The only job offers for Nepalis came through Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani recruiters because employers were unfamiliar with Nepal. Once Nepalis proved themselves as hard workers, the employers became keen to hire more of them.

“Times were different then. We were kept on a different pedestal and treated with respect,” Sattar says. Once profits, unhealthy competition and politics entered the industry, things took a downturn.

“Have you ever considered how, since years, we have workers from far-flung areas like Rolpa who had never even come to Kathmandu, working and earning in Qatar or the UAE?” he asks.“Who made that possible?”

As opportunities open up in non-traditional countries such as those in Europe, the same questions regarding familiarity and access of recruiters to employers come up. If diversification of migrant destination country is a priority, we cannot overlook the role of recruiters.

The pandemic has further underscored the need for international cooperation in migration governance. At the same time, it has revealed the inadequacies of existing international cooperation mechanisms.

The last 20 years saw the establishment of regional platforms like the Colombo Process between migrant sending countries in 2003, and the Abu Dhabi Dialogue in 2008 between both sending and receiving countries, as well as the Global Compact on Migration.

These forums that allow countries with varying agendas and priorities in migration to come together for a larger shared cause, is a huge step in migration governance and a result of persistent negotiations.

The past two decades also witnessed the signing of several bilateral labour agreements starting with the one with Qatar in 2005. However, their implementation has always been weak even when there is scope for mutually beneficial cooperation such as skills partnerships.

When Nepalis working in India unexpectedly showed up at the borders in the hundreds of thousands this year, it reminded us of not one, but two elephants in the room. The first one was the India-Nepal border that we continue to overlook, and the second was the unpreparedness of local governments which should have been well-placed to address the problems of migration, but have not been mobilised.

Nepal’s federalisation offers an immense opportunity in migration governance. There were initial small wins like allowing renewals of labour approvals at provincial levels or applying for welfare fund benefits at local levels. But the pandemic was a wake-up call, as the onus of managing tens of thousands of returnees from India has been placed on local governments amidst lack of data and resources.

Moving forward, leveraging the proximity advantage of local governments and decentralised service delivery will be critical. It means making up for the last three years since local governments were given a bunch of foreign employment mandate including returnee management, data collection and information dissemination.

Migration has been largely temporary in our part of the world, without a path to citizenship for workers in the Gulf nations or Malaysia. Reintegration never got due attention, while government documents do mention the need to mobilise returnees. There are some positive examples of financial assistance for returnees at local levels, but most migrants cannot afford to keep waiting to be ‘reintegrated’. This has compelled them to find ways to remigrate, instead.

Policies on reintegration, especially related to employment, are urgently needed. It is important to be mindful that unless the broader jobs and self-employment challenges faced by all regardless of your migration history are addressed, impact of specific reintegration interventions can be limited and incomplete. How will a job-search assistance program targeting returnees work if there are no jobs, for example?

While migration from Nepal is considered “temporary”, we have seen high volumes of renewals. The song Saili aptly referred to returning at the age 40 to be with the sweetheart, and not sooner as one would expect if migration was actually ‘temporary’, since migrants leave at a young age.

Whether hopping across different Gulf countries or staying in the same country for 20 years, migrants spend a significant portion of their working age away from Nepal. Alongside reintegration programs, the emphasis on social security agreements with destination countries as well as the option to participate in contributory social security, is necessary. Nepal recently signed a social security agreement with Malaysia in favour of migrant workers — a good example that needs to be replicated elsewhere.

In 2018, Nepal’s Foreign Employment Management Information System was a game-changer in providing comprehensive information on the outflow of Nepali migrant workers. But data on the total numbers abroad are not systematically maintained – an absence sorely felt during the Covid-19 crisis.

A messy data collection exercise took up a good deal of time in the initial period of the pandemic. We also need to focus on nationally representative survey data collection for migrants that cover their aspirations and migration experience.

When it comes to spending on migrant welfare, the Foreign Employer Welfare Fund (FEWF) is viewed as the only resource. As migrants were stranded abroad, the discussion did not move beyond who qualified for the benefits. We demanded that our undocumented workers across borders be treated well by authorities of destination countries, while the Nepal Government itself was discriminatory towards its citizens who did not have labour approvals and were considered ‘undocumented’.

We limited ourselves to an endless back-and-forth on the contributory fund when there was an entire Covid-19 fund set aside just for the pandemic. For a country so highly reliant on remittances, government spending on this sector is abysmal.

A critical learning highlighted during different emergencies, is the need for strong embassies. While there isn’t data on the stock of migrants, countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia have well over 300,000 Nepalis. The recent rescue of a Saudi case showed that despite having a consulate general office outside Riyadh where the embassy is based, just reaching one migrant worker in trouble took 14 hours, one way.

Nepal’s embassies in Oman and Israel have been managing migration issues well, but they have the advantage of the relatively low population of migrants. Embassy staffing and resources need to reflect migrant population and geography.

Reviewing key policies on migration also demands a focus on the free-visa-free-ticket policy and ban on domestic workers. In 2015, when it was introduced, Om Astha Rai in Nepali Times aptly asked: ‘Zero-cost migration, really’? Five years later we are still asking the same question.

As far back as 2006, Dambar Shrestha in this paper wrote about the ban on female domestic workers: ‘There was a general consensus that the ban should be repealed, as a way to monitor overseas employment, and ensure women have legal recourse if mistreated.”

Fifteen years later, the consensus remains while the demand in the care sector has increased globally and women have continued to leave via irregular channels. The question for us as we enter into the 2020s is: what do we do about these longstanding policies that are practically challenging to implement, but politically popular?

Upasana Khadka writes this column Labour Mobility every month in Nepali Times analysing trends affecting Nepal’s workers abroad.

Upasana Khadka