The Nepal government knows how much this country is dependent on remittances from Nepalis working abroad. It pays the salaries of politicians and bureaucrats from the money they send home.
They should also know how vulnerable the economy is to tensions in the Persian Gulf or Southeast Asia, or global emergencies like this pandemic. The Iraq War, the UAE and Saudi Arabian blockade of Qatar, and tension in the Straits of Hormuz between Iran and the United States highlighted the risk.
In 2004, twelve Nepali workers employed by contractors at a US military base in Iraq were shot to death on video. Fourteen Nepalis guarding the Canadian Embassy in Kabul were killed in 2016 in an attack by Taliban militants. Hundreds of Nepalis had to be evacuated from Libya when civil war broke out there in 2011.
And when the massive blast rent downtown Beirut on Tuesday, there were Nepali domestic workers and peacekeepers who were caught up in the horror. Because Nepalis are now scattered all over the globe, any conflict or natural disaster is likely to involve nationals of this country. More Nepalis have died of COVID-19 (190) in 38 countries, than in Nepal itself (60) so far.
The vulnerability of Nepal’s economy to over-reliance on migrant labour has been driven home by this pandemic. In Asia, Nepal is second only to Kyrgyzstan in terms of reliance on money sent home by its overseas workers – a full 28% equivalent of Nepal’s GDP comes from remittances.
More than 15% of Nepal’s population is working abroad. Of these 2.5-3 million (no one knows for sure) are in India. Of the other 2 million, 60% work in just four Gulf countries: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and Kuwait.
Of these, an estimated 200,000 have returned from India. And of the 210,000 who have registered with Nepal’s missions abroad to come home, only 32,000 have been repatriated since 15 June.
For the past two years, the number of Nepalis migrating overseas for work had been steadily declining, although remittances held steady. The pandemic now threatens to reduce that income.
The monthly remittances through official channels in April this year was half the amount for April 2019, although it has picked up since. The World Bank estimates that remittances globally this year will fall 20% below last year’s level, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) puts the losses at 28% for Nepal as its overseas workers are laid off, or get reduced salaries.