Nepal’s Number 1 export has been its people. In feudal times, impoverished farmers fled indebtedness, poverty and discrimination and migrated to India by the tens of thousands. They settled in Sikkim, Assam, Kumaon and Garhwal in India and in southern Bhutan.
Today, a quarter of Nepal’s population is working, studying or living abroad. The Nepali diaspora spans the globe, and Nepalis carry the passports of many countries. Among them are the uncounted millions who go to India to work either seasonally, contract workers in Malaysia, the Gulf, Korea and Japan, or those who emigrate permanently.
The push factors are not always poverty, but an aspiration for better lives, livelihoods and a higher standard of living. Nepalis do not just migrate because they cannot find a job here, but because there is peer pressure to go out and seek their fortune.
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With the democratic changes of 1990, there was at last supposed to be accountable and efficient government that would ensure economic growth and job creation so that Nepalis would no longer be forced to leave. But democracy soon disintegrated into infighting, and the country plunged into a war. Not only did successive governments in the past 30 years fail to deliver, they actively encouraged Nepalis to migrate so there would be less pressure from the streets.
Migration let rulers off the hook because they have not had to worry about job creation at home, and the remittances overseas Nepalis send home officially and unofficially (estimated at anywhere between $8-10 billion a year) is keeping the country afloat. It pays the country’s petroleum import bill which has tripled in the past five years.
Despite tales of abuse and exploitation by employers, the real mistreatment and cruelty of Nepalis is by fellow-Nepalis. Recruitment agents fleece the most vulnerable, squeezing every rupee out of the most desperate. The state and its agencies are ruthless in the harassment of migrants, erecting obstacles every step of their way as they leave the country and on their return. Instead of being hailed as national heroes for propping up the national economy, they are treated like dirt.
More than 4 million Nepalis went abroad in search of work in the last 20 years, nearly all of them paid a hefty fee to manpower middlemen, and had to overcome unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles. A Centre for Investigative Journalism report in August exposed how corrupt Malaysian and Nepali politicians and officials colluded to steal Rs 20,000 each from poor Nepali workers for over five years. Regime change in Malaysia and a can-do Labour Minister in Nepal are negotiating a government-to-government arrangement to bypass middlemen.
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A scathing report by Amnesty International Turning People into Profits: Abusive Recruitment, Trafficking and Forced Labour of Nepali Migrant Workers lists instances of state collusion in directly defrauding its own people. The report said nearly 90% of overseas contract workers were forced to pay unnecessarily high fees to recruiters to get them jobs overseas, and most were heavily indebted as a result. Amnesty said such ‘country-wide exploitation was flourishing under an often indifferent government’. Not indifferent. Greedy.
In this edition we carry an investigation into student visas becoming the preferred way for young Nepali men and women to emigrate. In the past year alone, at least 60,000 Nepalis have left the country with one-way tickets on student visas. In all, they spent at least $50 million in fees and other costs.
The number of students leaving for Asutralia has grown dramatically in the past three years, overtaking Japan. Both governments are aware of what is happening, and allow students to work about four hours a day. The earnings mostly go to educational establishments within their own countries, and the students provide a cheap source of unskilled labour that their own nationals shun.
Japan is now tightening on student visas, and there are dire reports from Australia of Nepali students who cannot juggle study and work. Outmigration in any form: be it as overseas contract workers or as workers pretending to be students is not a sustainable way to run the country’s economy.
There has to be a coherent long-term strategy to create jobs at home through vocational training and enforcing the minimum wage. In the shorter term, Nepalis going abroad have to be protected from rapacious fellow Nepalis preying on them, they need better orientation and job training, and the country should be willing to absorb them on their return and put their savings and experience to productive use.
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