Information gaps fail to keep track of a country on the move

By Om Astha Rai

Migration is not a new phenomenon in Nepal – Nepalis have been migrating for centuries in search of a better life. In the 18th century, when Prithvi Narayan Shah annexed weaker states with his own Gorkha kingdom and gave birth to modern Nepal, many migrated to India to evade exploitative land tax by the new ruler. In 1815, Nepal signed a treaty with the East India Company, allowing the British to recruit Nepali youths into their army.

In more recent times there has been an upsurge in migration, driven by poverty, civil strife and war at home and the lure of jobs in the Gulf and in fast-growing economies such as Malaysia. This is a major story, affecting millions of people, but is gets little special attention in Nepali media.

In 1985, the Nepal government introduced a Foreign Employment Act to facilitate migration of workers. In 1990, after the end of the absolute monarchy and the restoration of multi-party democracy, the government adopted liberal economic policies, encouraging young, jobless people to migrate abroad and send home remittances.

In 1993, the first year official statistics on migration were compiled, 3,605 left for the Gulf. By 2006, the year a decade-long civil war ended in Nepal, that figure had jumped to more than 200,000.

The migration rate has continued to rise: according to official figures more than half a million migrated in 2014 – or nearly 1,500 per day. The government says that in total more than 3.4 million migrated through legal channels between 1993 and 2014:

Malaysia has received the highest number (1,144,859), followed by Qatar (910,204), Saudi Arabia (66,604), UAE (42,072), Kuwait (97,973), Bahrain (40,651), Oman (23,632), South Korea (22,131), Lebanon (11,432), Israel (7,937), Afghanistan (6,175), Japan (13,842).

However, these records do not give the full picture: the government does not record returnees. Many who left Nepal might have returned or died overseas. Also many, particularly women, migrate through illegal channels, often via India, and there are no figures for them. A large number are seasonal migrants, going to India and returning for the planting and harvesting seasons. In 2010, the World Bank estimated that 867,000 Nepalis were in India but the figure could be much higher.

There are no exact numbers of migrant workers. But it is estimated that around four million are abroad, mainly in the Gulf countries and Malaysia. This estimate is based on the number who took out labour permits with the Department of Foreign Employment between 1993 and 2014, plus estimates of the number of undocumented workers who went abroad through informal channels.

While migration is widespread in all areas of Nepal eastern districts have seen the largest exodus over the past 20 years.

Most migrants are male: following reports of sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment of Nepali housemaids by employers, the government placed a ban on women going to several Arab countries, though many avoid the restrictions.

According to government statistics, at least 3,270 Nepalis died in Malaysia and the Gulf countries between 2009 and 2014, most of them men. The death rate is increasing year on year: in 2010, 418 were reported; in 2014 it was 842, or more than two a day.

Lack of job opportunities is the single biggest reason behind migration. “Jobs with decent incomes are rare in Nepal,” says Hari Krishna Neupane, who worked first in Israel and is now in Kuwait. “If you work in Nepal, you can survive but it is difficult to save any money to build your own house and send your children to English-medium schools.

“It is not that salaries are very attractive in foreign countries. Many unskilled Nepali workers earn about NRs 15,000 (about 150 US$) a month. But they manage to save because they always keep in mind that they are there to earn.

“Youths are lured by manpower agents with lies about salaries and other factors. If they know they will have to work like slaves they will not go but once they land in the Gulf it is very difficult to return. They have no means to pay off a huge loan which they take to go abroad. In addition, most Arab countries practice the ‘Kafala’ system in which employers have charge of the workers’ passports.”

The number of migrants is likely to increase dramatically over the next few years as a result of the recent earthquakes. On 25 April, 2015, a 7.8 magnitude quake killed nearly 9,000 people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of houses. The government has offered loans for rebuilding: many of the earthquake victims who borrow will have to migrate to pay them back.

Ram Hari Katwal, a 26-year-old from Melamchi village in Sidhuplachok, the district worst-affected by earthquake, had gone to Malaysia one year before to pay off a loan that he took to build a house. The earthquake not only destroyed it but also killed his wife and one-year-old son.

“I have not paid off my previous loan,” says Katwal. “I will now have to take out another to rebuild my house, and it is not possible to pay off these loans working in Nepal. I must go abroad again.”

Besides migration abroad, there has been a big surge in internal migration with large numbers moving from rural to urban areas, particularly during the civil war. Over the past 20 years, the population of the valley around Kathmandu, the capital, has nearly doubled.

Migration and media: A poverty of reliable information

Migration in Nepal touches millions of families, but media coverage fails to give it any special focus or attention. Most reporters see the issue only as an extension of other newsbeats like business, the economy and foreign affairs. Television channels, radio and online news portals do not have specialist migration reporters.

“Any reporter who is free can do a migration story but someone else is likely to do it on another day,” says Govinda Pariyar, editor of, an online news portal. “Our reporters do not explore issues, they cover just incidents. For example, if some migrant workers are deported or swindled, it makes news. We do not have resources to do in-depth stories digging out reasons behind their misery.”

Kantipur Daily, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the country, was the first to have a reporter covering labour migration. Kantipur began publication in 1993 – the year the government started maintaining data about migrant workers: most stories were written in the context of job opportunities, or about labour agreements between Nepal and various Arab countries and the value of remittances and their contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Later, other newspapers started covering the subject. Most, like Kantipur, wrote from a mainly business perspective. This continues to be the case. At Nagarik Daily, the foreign affairs reporter includes migration as part of his brief. In Republica, a sister publication of Nagarik, the reporter assigned to migration also covers gender issues, women’s rights, children and culture.

“Migration-related stories are few and far between, as compared to other newsbeats like politics, crime and sports,” says Shreejana Shrestha, who covers migration for Republica. It might look as though reporters have a plethora of migration issues to write about. But these issues are often the same – workers being swindled by manpower agents, difficulties in getting passports, or about labour permits and deportation from destination countries.

“When you write a couple of stories about migrant workers being swindled or deported, you do not feel like writing more because while the names of those involved might be different, the issues remain the same,” he says.

One major handicap is access to reliable sources and good statistical data. Most comes from government officials, NGO activists, Kathmandu-based experts, manpower agents and some migrant workers on their way to or from foreign countries.

Due to a lack of financial resources, reporters rarely have the opportunity and means to look closely into the conditions migrants work under. Surendra Poudel, who covers migration for Nagarik, is essentially a foreign affairs reporter. He started covering migration after hearing, via Foreign Ministry officials, about Nepalis being exploited abroad. But he has never been able to visit countries where this occurred.

“I write just what I know from the Foreign Ministry officials,” says Poudel. “Sometimes, I get lucky and talk to migrant workers abroad on the phone but that’s it. I have never seen what their conditions are like. I do not know whether what they describe to me is real. Or maybe they are working in more deplorable situations than they are able to describe.”

Kantipur is an exception. It has a bureau in Qatar which not only covers the Gulf region but also publishes a weekly newspaper in Qatar targeting Nepali migrant workers there. But it has not been able to cover many of the issues they experience.

According to the paper’s Qatar bureau chief, Hom Karki, only two kinds of data about migrant workers can easily be found: the number who obtain labour permits to go abroad through legal channels and the number who die abroad. Other not-so-significant data, such as the number of registered manpower agencies and institutions qualified to run pre-departure orientation programmes, is also available on the Nepal government website.

But it is not always reliable and only tells the official story. For example, due to illegal migration, the number obtaining work permits does not reflect the actual number working abroad. Financial data is also limited: while the Central Bank of Nepal is able to track remittances sent back through formal channels like banks and registered money-transfer companies, many workers use “Hundi”, a traditional form of money transfer that does not pass through official bodies.

Karki says that even though he is based in the Gulf it is still difficult to get hold of reliable data. “We are forced to rely on our own government’s agencies. We cannot go to Qatari government offices and ask. Two years ago, I wanted to get hold of more useful data such as the exact number of Nepalis working in Qatar and how many were in which sectors. I asked at the Nepali embassy: it wrote to Qatar’s labour ministry but up till now there has been no response.

“The issue of migrant workers is so vast that with limited resources it is difficult to explore even from here. So how can we expect Kathmandu-based reporters to present the real picture?” he asks. “When I came here, I realised that the conditions are much worse than what I thought while reporting from Kathmandu.”

Karki also finds that editors back home in Nepal do not understand these conditions. “I sent a story about migrant workers forced to sleep in congested rooms that have no air-conditioning but I was ridiculed by my editors for trying to make a mountain out of a molehill.

“They did not understand the difference between Nepal and Qatar. In Nepal, only well-off people sleep in AC rooms. But in Qatar, AC is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Like you cannot live without oxygen, you cannot survive without AC in Qatar.

“Another time I wrote about how migrant workers have to walk to the embassy office here to lodge complaints about working conditions. Again, my editors in Kathmandu laughed it off because walking to the office is normal in Nepal. In the desert heat of Qatar, if you walk out on the streets, you might lose your life.”

Karki says the Nepali media have not been able to explore many migrant issues. “When workers go on strike and get arrested and deported back to Nepal, it makes big news,” he says. “But the media often fail to find out what circumstances led them to go on strike in a foreign country. Were they getting the wages they were promised? Were they getting their promised leave, their off-duty hours, their liveable rooms or potable water? The media does not bother to explore these nuances.”

The social impact of mass migration is also rarely reported. Many youths fall into drug addiction because their fathers live far away and come home only once in two or three years. In a patriarchal society such as Nepal, mothers alone cannot provide proper guidance. When a migrant worker dies abroad, his wife and children are left to fend for themselves.

After the recent earthquakes, it was reported that women in many areas faced difficulties in building shelters or rebuilding damaged houses in the absence of their husbands. Before the earthquake, that kind of reporting was rare. Every year disasters like floods and landslides hit villages and women are left to cope as best they can.

In the absence of proper in-depth, comprehensive and compelling reporting, there is little pressure on the government to act on some of the serious questions surrounding the export of labour. Manpower agencies within Nepal and in the Gulf states have been accused by workers of charging excessive fees and extracting bribes yet little has been done to curb their activities.

As many as 3,272 Nepali migrant workers died in the Gulf countries and Malaysia between 2009 and 2014, with 847 recorded as dying from heart failure. The question is, why do so many, most below the age of 40, suffer heart failure? Is it because of the extremely hot and unpleasant conditions? Or are there other factors at play?

Some deaths may be due to a sudden drop in body temperature: returning migrants report that workers, during breaks from the intense heat in the Gulf, often fall asleep in air-conditioned rooms, dying as their bodies fail to adapt to the sudden cold.

The government has not adequately investigated, and without its help – particularly in the Gulf countries where directly questioning the authorities is very difficult for reporters – the true picture is unlikely to emerge.

Comprehensive and compelling coverage of the lives of migrant workers is rare, with few journalists or media outlets having the resources, the imagination and enthusiasm to carry out the task.

Two years ago, a team from Sajha Sawal – translated as “Common Questions” – a popular television show produced by the BBC Nepali Trust, went to Qatar and interviewed migrant workers. It showed the often very difficult conditions and unmasked manpower agents who had misled workers about their contracts and salaries. This episode of Sajha Sawal is still considered one of the best examples of coverage of migrant issues.

In 2009, Nepal Weekly, a news magazine, ran a cover story about deaths abroad in another good piece of reporting which drew the government’s attention to the unusually high rate of deaths of migrant workers, particularly in Arab countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But the magazine failed to follow up and there was no effort by government to put diplomatic pressure on either Qatar or Saudi Arabia to protect Nepali workers, and the death rate among those in the Gulf continues to be high.

Bridging the information gap at home and abroad

This lack of protection for migrant workers fails to recognise how migration plays a central role in Nepal’s economy. Remittances sent home have not only sustained local economic activity but also helped reduce poverty. In rural villages, many women are able to feed their children nutritious food and send them to school because their husbands earn money abroad.

Over the last two decades, Nepal has succeeded in bringing down the percentage of its people living below the poverty line. Without remittances the fight against poverty would be all the more difficult: in a 2013 report, the National Planning Commission said the incidence would jump to more than 33 per cent from the current 19 per cent if remittances stopped. It is difficult to imagine the impact this would have on the economy.

Like much other data related to migration, reliable figures on remittance are not available. In 2013, Nepal Rashtra Bank, the country’s central regulatory bank, estimated that it represented 25.7 per cent of GDP.

The government has no plans to put an end to migration but seems to have adopted policies encouraging it. Setting up the Foreign Employment Promotion Board (FEPB) in 2007 showed that the government wanted to encourage Nepali youths to migrate.

Ganesh Gurung is Nepal’s foremost expert on labour migration and the remittance economy. “Migration should not be promoted but managed by the government,” he says. “Youths must be encouraged to stay by creating job opportunities within the country. But our government is not focused on creating job opportunities. In this situation, an end to migration does not look in sight. I think it will go on for the next couple of decades.”

Comprehensive coverage of migration is vital for the country and the media needs more resources and to be better trained.

One way to improve the situation is more migration-focused fellowships for journalists. Panos South Asia, a regional media organisation based in Kathmandu, is carrying out the first phase of a fellowship programme aimed at selecting journalists to go to the Gulf countries and cover migration.

Managing and releasing reliable data is also important. The government should track workers not only when they leave but also while they are abroad or when they return. It should also be more proactive in investigating allegations of abuse.

According to Kantipur’s Qatar bureau chief Karki, workers who complain about injustices are often ignored by their own authorities. “When they cannot take it (abuse) any more, they go to their embassy. But the embassy sends them back to Qatar’s labour department, which will never do them justice.”

Some groups in Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait have been running blog-like online news portals. These are not professionally produced but many are popular. Workers could be trained and encouraged to provide more information which could be used by Kathmandu-based journalists. However migrant blogging groups are wary of gaining too much publicity: they do not want to get into trouble with the authorities in the Gulf and elsewhere and endanger their work status and income.

Main image: “Earthquake in Nepal” by Samir Jung Thapa/ADB licensed under CC BY 2.0



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