Poverty, lack of domestic employment and increased income opportunities outside the country have driven Nepali youth to foreign employment. For a few years the numbers of female migrants have been steadily rising, too. The age restrictions the government places on women who want to migrate to India and the Gulf states for domestic work means they are more likely to fall victim to smugglers and traffickers.
According to Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment, more than four million Nepalis obtained work permits in the last decade. Remittances account for nearly one-quarter of the entire GDP of Nepal and was also what Nepalis relied on economically after the devastating earthquake of 2015 and the undeclared blockade imposed by India in the same year.
Nepali migrants are usually employed in the tourism, hospitality and construction sectors as well as at shopping malls. The global pandemic affects these sectors and businesses, resulting in migrant workers facing unemployment in several destination countries. Nepali workers are expecting support from their government because they have exhausted their savings during the lockdowns. Even more vulnerable are the workers who were trafficked or smuggled through unofficial channels and are staying illegally in the destination countries, unable to access help from either origin or destination countries. These, the most vulnerable and exploited among migrant workers, must be prioritized for rescue soon.
A good way to go about this is to coordinate with embassies to develop a list of migrant workers who need emergency support, rescuing those who are in the poorest condition, including those who need health and psychosocial support in addition to financial help. A list of workers with detailed information and addresses would make it easier to trace and provide health support.
All of these steps need preparatory groundwork. The official process of migration requires that workers obtain work permits and fly out of Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. However, some workers, especially female workers who are attempting to evade the age ban and the domestic work ban in several countries, are using road entries into India and then moving on to reach the destination country. Therefore, there is no accurate data about the actual numbers of workers who have migrated for work to these countries. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many Nepali nationals to return home, has also provided us with an opportunity to collect information and improve data-collection mechanisms, processes and systems.
The Government of Nepal should be prepared for quarantine, health and employment generation before repatriating workers back to Nepal. Local and provincial governments have an opportunity to establish and/or improve the data-mechanism system related to foreign employment. It is very important to keep careful records of returned migrants and their families. These may help us to design employment and livelihood programs based on the skills of workers. Foreign employment-related government stakeholders should have coordination channels and should share data and other information among them when they design the program for returned migrants. Foreign employment helps Nepali society bring back different levels of skills. Respecting those skills may help to plan and design community livelihood-related programs.
Will all workers be repatriated? Can local government generate employment opportunities in the current situation? Are local governments implementing agriculture-related livelihood programs to support returned migrants specifically? Do we have a market-management policy and a preparation and action plan to move forward regarding the livelihood-related programs? If not, when will this happen? These are the questions the local and provincial governments need to look into and answer. All three levels of government must coordinate effectively to generate employment opportunities and suitable livelihood projects. If today the government is able to stand for returned migrants and support them effectively, we may not have to see the coming generations queuing up for permits to work abroad or taking desperate steps through unofficial migration channels to work in foreign countries, making themselves vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.