Nepal has a long history of migration to foreign lands for employment. Well before the rise of the nation state, the territory’s geostrategic location between the Tibetan plateau and the Gangetic plain led to significant migration for trade. But migration for employment picked up around two centuries ago, when Nepali men travelled to Lahore to join the army of the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh. In the process, they earned themselves and those similarly employed abroad the nickname Lahure, after Ranjit Singh’s capital city. Another important milestone was the recruitment of the first Nepalis – ‘Gurkhas’ – into the British Army in 1815; since then, Nepali migrants have been sending remittances to their families back home, an important source of income for the economy as a whole.
As the Nepali economy has suffered during the decade-long conflict and subsequent transitional period, a large number of young people have migrated for employment. According to official figures, around 1000 young Nepalis leave the country in search of work every day, mainly heading to the Gulf countries and Malaysia. Of course, hundreds more are also going to India or other countries as undocumented migrants. All of these labourers continue to send a large volume of remittances, which in 2009-10 made up some 23 percent of the gross domestic product.
India accounts for the largest number of Nepalis working abroad, but there is no official record of this number, since the open border means that Nepalis do not require travel documents. The 1960s saw increasing demand for Nepalis to work as household-level security guards in India, though this trend declined in the 1980s and 1990s due to India’s ethno-politics and a lack of security for Nepali migrants. According to a 2004 study by the Nepal Institute of Development Studies (NIDS), around 1.5 million Nepali migrants were thought to be in India, 1.3 million men and 153,000 women. Around the same time, a report in the Nepali media placed this number far higher, with at least three million Nepalis thought to be working in India. Today, most of these workers earn meagre wages of INR 1000-3000 per month.
The Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait, have now become important destinations for Nepali workers, hosting more than 192,000 documented Nepalis in 2009, around 95 percent of whom were men. Exploitation and poor working conditions remain major problems, though in 2007 Nepal and the UAE signed a labour agreement making Nepali workers eligible for legal action to enforce their contracts. This was expected to end the practice by private recruiting agencies that allegedly were demanding exorbitant fees, providing false information about working conditions, and misleading workers. An agreement was also signed with Qatar in 2008, ensuring that Nepali workers are provided with remuneration and facilities as specified by Qatari labour law.
Malaysia is growing in importance as a destination for Nepali youths, with nearly 49,500 heading there in 2009 alone. Most of the estimated 4000 Nepalis in Malaysia are employed in export-oriented units, producing goods for Europe, and receive salaries of between USD 200 and 300 per month. But the levy to be paid by migrant workers to the Malaysian government has recently become more a problem, making it a less preferred option. Meanwhile, North America and Western Europe account for far fewer numbers among the Nepali diaspora. The US, Canada and Mexico host some 10,000 between them, while around 14,500 work in the EU.
Migration comes with a spectrum of social costs. Data from official sources shows that around 750 migrants died while abroad in 2007. In the absence of insurance schemes in such cases, there is little security for their families back home. Family problems are also rife, with divorce rates among migrant families reported to have increased. Nepal is currently experiencing an HIV epidemic, with prevalence of over five percent in certain high-risk groups; seasonal-labour migrants account for 40 percent of this population.
For many years there was no discrimination for Nepali women in foreign employment. But in 1997, Kathmandu moved to ban Nepali women from working in the Gulf in the aftermath of a controversial death. After a few years this ban was lifted, with conditions stipulating that Nepali women could only work in the formal sector, thus precluding them from work as maids in private homes. (In 2007, this ban was extended to Malaysia.) Nonetheless, Nepali women continue to work in largely unregulated areas throughout India, thus prompting many to see the ban as meaningless beyond increasing the cost of migration and degree of vulnerability for Nepali women abroad.
~ Ganesh Gurung is a sociologist in Kathmandu who has researched migration for the past decade.