The lack of economic opportunities at home is forcing 1,700 Nepalis to fly abroad every day, including to the Russia-Ukraine War
For 23-year-old Hari Aryal from Syangja, a town west of Pokhara, a job in the Nepal Army was not enough. He remained dissatisfied with his pay scale after more than two years and resigned. But his plans to go abroad didn’t work out until he came across videos posted by Nepalis who had joined the Russian Army in the war against Ukraine on social media. Excited by the possibility, Aryal contacted a middleman, who sent him to Dubai on a tourist visa, and onwards to Russia. On 4 December 2023, Aryal posted a video on his social media wearing Russian military fatigues with the caption, ‘Such is life’. Aryal’s family could not contact him thereafter.
On 2 January 2023, the Government of Nepal announced that Aryal had been killed in the war, along with two other Nepalis, bringing the total number of Nepali casualties in this distant war to 13. Officially, at least 200 Nepalis are said to be serving in the Russian Army. Unofficially, the numbers could be higher. Immigration department statistics show that 1,890 Nepalis were issued tourist visas to Russia and Ukraine in 2023, most of whom haven’t returned according to officials. A Ukrainian government official posted a video of a captured Nepali soldier on X, while reports suggest at least four Nepalis are held captive by Ukrainian forces. The Nepal government has sent multiple diplomatic notes to Moscow asking it to stop recruiting Nepali nationals, and also issued a notification halting all work permits to Russia and Ukraine until further notice. The foreign minister has also recently said Russia is ready to compensate the families of those killed, but the modalities aren’t clear yet.
A Ukrainian government official posted a video of a captured Nepali soldier on X, while reports suggest at least four Nepalis are held captive by Ukrainian forces.
But these efforts have come too late. Over a hundred Nepali families have petitioned the government to rescue their families according to the foreign minister. Unscrupulous middlemen, including ‘networks of influential people’, have assisted several hundred Nepalis like Aryal to go to Russia via the Gulf states on student and tourist visas, where they are promised salaries of up to NRs. 400,000 a month (around US$3,000), and even a fast-tracked Russian citizenship. These agents are said to charge up to NPR 500,000 per person to traffic Nepalis to the Russian war front. ‘Poverty is pushing people from different countries to join the Russian Army, and they’re hiring as many as they can,’ an unidentified Nepali combatant in the Russian Army told NPR.
The lack of employment and economic opportunities at home is forcing at least 1,700 Nepalis to fly abroad every day, and the Russia-Ukraine war has emerged as a lucrative destination for Nepalis desperate enough to leave the country. The desire to migrate out of Nepal is so pervasive that there were over 30,000 applicants to language proficiency tests for shipbuilding jobs in South Korea in January 2024. New Korean employment regulations barred an individual from applying to different jobs in the same year. Those who failed the language test demanded to take the test for manufacturing jobs. In the ensuing protests, two Nepalis were killed by security forces, and a minister’s personal vehicle was burnt down.
Nepali migrants have never been strangers to wars and conflict, starting from the two World Wars, in which almost more than 100,000 Gorkhas were recruited to fight for the British armies across the world. At the peak of the Second Iraq War in 2004, 12 Nepali construction workers were abducted and murdered by an Islamist group, resulting in massive anti-Muslim riots across the country. More than 20 years later, nearly 2.1 million Nepalis live outside Nepal according to the 2021 census, comprising 7.4 percent of the total population. Almost a fifth of them are women, and the median age of all workers was just 28. In 2023, Nepali workers sent home US$ 11 billion in remittances. At 27 percent of the national GDP, Nepal’s remittance-to-GDP ratio is among the highest in the world, and the highest in South Asia. Nepalis are said to be working in at least 150 countries, but the country has signed bilateral labour agreements with fewer than a tenth of them.
The lack of employment and economic opportunities at home is forcing at least 1,700 Nepalis to fly abroad every day, and the Russia-Ukraine war has emerged as a lucrative destination for Nepalis desperate enough to leave the country.
It’s not just migrant Nepali workers who are abroad. Nepali students are third in number after Chinese and Indian students in Australia, with nearly 52,000 students in the country. The Nepali community is the 11th largest migrant community in Australia, with 129,870 Nepalis in 2021—a fivefold increase from 2011. Similarly, in the United States (US), Nepalis were the fastest-growing Asian immigrant population according to the 2020 census, increasing from 51,907 in 2010 to 205,297 in 2020, a four-fold increase. Nearly 12,000 Nepalis study in the US, forming the 12th leading place of origin for international students.
All of this gives new meaning to the phrase ‘Global Nepali’. With the economy less of a priority for a government that prioritises regime survival, the number of Nepalis abroad is expected to continue rising. A survey found that 16 percent of those who returned home were unemployed, thus creating a vast pool of labour for other countries. With the migrant Nepali worker now demanding absentee voting rights, Kathmandu paving the way for dual citizenship for non-resident Nepalis without voting rights recently, and Nepalis being caught in global conflict zones, the migrant Nepali is now a domestic political issue as well.
Nepalis have always migrated out of the country for economic reasons. While trade was one of the historical reasons, the pace of migration picked up under British colonialism in South Asia, both through recruitment in the military and the enticement of thousands to move to the tea plantations of Northeast India, forming the first great Nepali diaspora in India.
Nepal’s liberalised passport regime in the 1990s, which coincided with the demand for labour among the Gulf countries and the beginnings of the Maoist civil war, all contributed to migration to third countries subsequently.
India remains one of the primary destinations for Nepali migrants, with 2.5-5 million Nepalis even today. Nepal’s liberalised passport regime in the 1990s, which coincided with the demand for labour among the Gulf countries and the beginnings of the Maoist civil war, all contributed to migration to third countries subsequently. Despite the end of the civil war in 2008, political instability and economic uncertainty meant Nepalis continued to go abroad. Between 2008-09 and 2021-22, more than 4.7 million new labour permits were issued by the government.
Today, seven countries—Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Malaysia—account for 80 percent of all Nepali migrants. European countries such as Portugal, Malta, Croatia, and Romania also have a large Nepali migrant population, while in Asia, Japan, and South Korea are preferred destinations. The highest number of Nepali migrants come from the two provinces of Koshi and Madhes. A 2011 survey found that 56 percent of all Nepali households have at least one family member abroad.
Remittances by migrant workers have, in turn, sustained the Nepali economy and helped lift families out of absolute poverty. Remittances have unsurprisingly become the largest source of foreign exchange for Nepal. A 2021 central bank study found that households receiving remittances are 2.3 percent less likely to be poor, and that ‘the probability of households plunging into poverty decreases by about 1.1 percent with every 10 percent increase in remittance inflows. At the same time, increased consumption due to rise in remittances has also resulted in ballooning import costs.
Capital formation due to remittances remains low, and one study suggested that sustained low agricultural productivity could also be the result of a shortage of labour due to outmigration.
While one can argue that remittances have been vital for increasing the living standards of low-income households in Nepal, its other economic impacts require more attention. Capital formation due to remittances remains low, and one study suggested that sustained low agricultural productivity could also be the result of a shortage of labour due to outmigration. Most importantly, the social dynamics of migration haven’t been paid adequate attention either. For instance, nearly all migrant workers belong to the age group between 18 to 44, with half between the ages of 25-34, meaning the most economically productive demographic in Nepal no longer lives and works inside the country. Instead of effective policymaking that discourages foreign employment, successive Nepali governments have encouraged foreign employment by signing new bilateral labour agreements and treating the migrants like a ‘cash cow’.
The foreign employment market is a high-supply, low-demand market. Most migrant workers come from poverty-stricken families, borrowing money to fund the recruitment fees and other processes, and are usually semi-skilled or unskilled. Workers are recruited with the help of private recruitment agencies, also known as manpower companies, and informal networks and agents. Due to the weak bargaining power of the workers, ‘[w]hile these formal and informal intermediaries perform crucial job-matching and recruitment functions in Nepal, there is widespread evidence of the prevalence of abusive and unethical recruitment practices’ in the industry, as seen in the illegal trafficking to the Russian front. A study found that a majority of migrants paid anywhere between NPR 80,000-NPR 180,000 as recruitment fees, despite Nepal instituting a ‘free visa, free ticket’ policy for potential migrant workers to the seven largest recruiting countries. Manpower companies exploit the loopholes in the system resulting in ‘a wide divergence between the actual cost borne by migrant workers and what is officially documented.’
Workers are recruited with the help of private recruitment agencies, also known as manpower companies, and informal networks and agents.
It is not uncommon to hear migrants being cheated, trafficked, forced to work in terrible conditions, and sometimes even physically abused by employers. Women, in particular, have been subjected to physical abuse in the Gulf countries. As a result, Nepal banned women from taking up domestic housemaid jobs in the Gulf countries in 2017, and in 2021, issued a law saying women under 40 travelling abroad needed consent from their families and the local ward office. Such laws are commonly explained as emanating from a desire to protect Nepali women from being trafficked abroad. But commentators have noted that the government instead restricts women’s mobility and rights under the guise of these laws.
It is also not uncommon to see coffins of dead migrant workers being unloaded at the Tribhuvan International Airport. Government statistics say 10,666 Nepali migrant workers have died abroad since 2008-09, more than 700 every year. An investigation into the 2022 Qatar Football World Cup said 6,500 workers died during the construction of the stadiums. Nearly 1,700 of them were Nepalis.
Nepal’s poor diplomatic presence and capacity have often been blamed for the exploitation of Nepali workers abroad. The government recently decided to open diplomatic missions in countries with more than 10,000 Nepali workers. Nepal also appoints labour attachés or counsellors to missions in countries with more than 5000 workers, and a woman labour attaché for countries with more than 1000 women migrant workers. But this is not sufficient given the pace of migration and the demand for workers is almost twice as much as the number of labour approvals issued.
Nepal also appoints labour attachés or counsellors to missions in countries with more than 5000 workers, and a woman labour attaché for countries with more than 1000 women migrant workers.
Labour migration has long been debated in Nepal for these reasons. While it has lifted thousands of families out of poverty and provided opportunities to counteract unemployment at home, it has also resulted in the cream of the Nepali population working abroad. Successive Nepali governments have been unable to halt the pace of migration because of their lack of focus on generating employment through economic reforms at home. This has become a political issue, with parties and leaders promising benefits for migrants. But no leader yet has had the temerity to deal with what is essentially a brain drain that has resulted in the best Nepali talent and workforce moving abroad in the prime of their lives.
Amish Raj Mulmi is the Author of All Roads Lead North: Nepal’s Turn To China (Context/Hurst/Oxford University Press).
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Amish Raj Mulmi is the author of All Roads Lead North: Nepal's Turn to China (Context/Hurst/Oxford University Press). He has written for Carnegie Endowment for ...Read More +