In Nepal, voluntary migration is taking place mostly to cope with the economic vulnerabilities back home. Migrant workers, mainly youths and males, have flown to foreign labour markets to overcome the hardships arising from abject poverty, food insecurity and harsh geographic conditions, and some other socio-economic factors. Natural disasters are also responsible for forced migration of Nepalis. As stated by the preliminary data of the 2021 Nepal Census, more than 2.16 million Nepalis are engaged in overseas job during the time of census.
Until some years ago, overseas migration of Nepalis was a male dominant phenomenon and was more concentrated on the Gulf countries and Malaysia but now the pattern of outmigration and countries of destination have massively changed. As per the census, the number of women migrant workers stands at over 406,000. Different studies point out that Nepalis have reached almost 130 countries in search of job and the new destinations are still being explored by the migrants themselves in course of their journey. The government data shows that more than half of the total households in the country receive remittance while the figure could reach as high as two-thirds if the number of Nepalis going to India for seasonal job is taken into account.
Adversity At least an individual from each household is supposed to have migrated to India from the districts of Karnali and Sudurpaschim provinces. In some cases, the entire family has migrated to India for seasonal job. This situation shows how serious the overseas migration is in Nepal. Despite contributing to economic support for the family, migration has also brought adversities to the migrants and their families.
Though our society perceives the migrant workers as cash cows, their toil has not been well recognised. The remittance sent by them has played a key role in improving the livelihood of their families back home. Of course, the overseas employment has yielded good results in societal empowerment, and increased domestic consumption, access to technological devices and technical education but these benefits have come at huge social costs in Nepal that has not received the gaze of policy makers and political leaders.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has further exacerbated the cases of social costs that emerged due to reduced working hours, job losses, and untimely return and poor reintegration schemes. The pandemic has had severe impacts on labour migration sector with restricted mobility, compromising health care services to the migrants and discrimination in vaccination drive in the initial days. Different policies in the countries of origin, transit and destination have not only created hassles for their travel and works but also infringed upon their basic human rights.
The children of migrant workers have experienced emotional trauma and financial difficulty. According to Safer Migration (SAMI) project, which is a bilateral initiative of the Government of Nepal and Swiss Government, the separation of family members, estrangement in husband-wife relationships, disputes between family members for control over resources, tainting the image of the wife left behind and wrongfully accusing women returnee migrants of being involved in sex work are some of the challenges families have to deal with.
Since the kids are deprived of their parental love and affection, they are prone to one or the other kind of long-term psychological challenges. As a result of parents’ out-migration, the school dropout rate among children is unexceptionally high while they are prone to drug abuse and finally themselves falling into the trap of traffickers’ net. Authors Dilip Ratha, Sanket Mohapatra and Elina Scheja in their paper ‘Impact of Migration on Economic and Social Development: A Review of Evidence and Emerging Issues’ argue that children are commonly victims of trafficking that can lead to life-long trauma adding that the abuse of migrants by the middlemen or the recruitment agencies is a problem that is growing in magnitude as the migration flows increase and the phenomenon becomes more commercialised.
Likewise, rising cases of divorce, family disintegration, and additional family burden on women, illicit relations and polygamy have increased the social costs of out-migration. Similarly, the incidents of social costs are comparatively higher in the families of irregular migrants because the irregular migrants are vulnerable ones in terms of income, safety, security and protection. In the recent days, the representatives from different local levels have time and again shared that they have received large number of applications of divorce from the migrants.
As more men have migrated abroad, the women back home are bearing additional family burden and they are, in some context, victims of domestic violence. Defamation of left- behind women has been a common phenomenon at times, which needs to be discouraged at the earliest with positive intervention from the state. At the glorification of out-migration, Nepali society is not only becoming profligate but also losing its modesty, ethical norms and family values. It’s high time we worked to address those issues legally, politically, socially and pragmatically through victim’s lens.
Reintegration From the side of state, a very little step has been initiated to overcome the social costs of foreign employment. Now, a broader framework on reintegration of returnee migrants should be charted out with psychosocial counselling, entrepreneurship development, employment opportunity mechanism and awareness campaigns in place. Proper policies and programmes for sustainable reintegration of migrants could enable the migrant workers to get engaged in productive works at home. While doing so, the children’s sensitivity should be taken into account and childhood development schemes need to be promoted with the participation of the local government. Likewise, building social networks of the people left-behind could serve as a coping mechanism in minimising the social costs. But, the victim-blaming tendency and gender biases would lead us nowhere.