The startling figures of 384,198 Nepalis leaving for short-term overseas employment in emerging economies of Asia and the Gulf in the last fiscal year is both a challenge and an opportunity for a labor surplus country like Nepal. Pushed by limited economic prospects at home, a large number of men actively seek opportunities for overseas employment that not only earn them money but also help them assert their male identity as a provider.
Not only do hundreds of migrants leave Nepal everyday, but an equal number of migrants also return home with enhanced skills, exposure to new ideas and values, financial and social capital as well as wider aspirations to initiate enterprising activities. However, those who return soon feel disheartened and disillusioned due to the lack of a support system and credit facilities as well as poor investment climate at home. Although a few success stories of returnee migrants feature in national dailies, many of them decide to take up employment again in a foreign land.
Statistics from the Department of Foreign Employment show that a total of 146,140 individuals obtained re-entry permission from the department in 2011, and the number of returnee migrants going back to foreign employment is increasing each year. This ought to be a major concern for the management of foreign employment in a country where about 30 percent of the GDP is supported by remittance.
The mainstream discourse on labour migration in Nepal focuses on the contribution of remittance in the national economy. Within the discourse of migration for development, remittances have also been seen as a significant source of funds that could be used for the realization of Millennium Development Goals and its concomitant targets. However, the migration-development nexus and its remedial impacts on poverty have been increasingly contested and research and studies are examining ways to maximize the development impact of remittances.
The assumption underlying the role of return migration in the development of the origin country is heavily contested by migration scholars. The assumption being that temporary low-wage occupations do not give workers enough time to generate the kind of financial capital that would allow them to come back and make meaningful investments at home. However, this assumption has been contested by migration scholars like Hein de Haas (2009), who argue that “migration and the flow of remittances, as well as the experience, skills and knowledge of returning migrants, would help sending regions in developing countries in their economic take-off”. His findings are similar to those of the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM, 2005), which stated that temporary migrants not only remit more money as compared to the permanent migrants, but are more likely to have deeper ties with the home country and, therefore, more prepared to invest in their country’s development. More importantly, the remittance that poorer migrants send goes directly towards the poorer section of the population who are often excluded in development policies and programs.
Most Nepali migrants leaving for overseas employment are involved in temporary short-term contracts that last for two to three years. The above mentioned assertion on temporary migrants and their role in development is exemplified by several innovative small scale enterprises that returnee migrants from Korea, Israel, and the Gulf are undertaking in districts like Chitwan, Pokhara and Palpa. Most of these returnee migrants are harnessing their skills and accumulated capital to start micro and small business such as organic vegetable farming, poultry and livestock, aquaculture and handicrafts.
Conceding the potential link between return migration and economic development, the Foreign Employment Promotion Board (FEPB) in 2012 introduced a provision of imparting skill development and entrepreneurial training to returnee migrant workers. A miniscule amount of Rs. 3 million has been set aside to help returnee migrants find jobs inside the country. Financial literacy and entrepreneurial development programs are currently being conducted.
Reintegration strategies and initiatives should be part of migration policies and must be included in the development planning of the country as a way to maximize the development potential of returnee migrants. This would help reduce the many gaps that exist.
First, large numbers of returnees remain unaware of the government schemes due to lack of sufficient information available to them. There is a clear information as well as support gap, and there is a lack of advisory services for returnee migrants about the possible investment opportunities and the utilization of their skills.
Second, there is no systematic assessment of the motivations for return and the utilization of savings and acquired skills in the country. The process of return of migrants is influenced by several factors, and which in turn, affect the development potential of migrants.
Third, programs should be implemented in coordination with other government agencies such as Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives (MoAC) and Ministry of Industry (MOI) and private sector partners. Some lessons can be learnt from traditional migrant outflow country like the Philippines, where the government’s Overseas Workers Welfare Administration supports an inter-governmental agency referral system called the Replacement and Monitoring Center. The Center currently offers returnees job placement services, skill training, livelihood programs, and job opportunity assessments among other services. The Foreign Employment Promotion can work towards developing a similar project in partnership with the private sector in Nepal.
Prime Minister Bhattarai, in his budget speech, underscored the need for creating a conducive economic environment in country so that migration does not become a desperate option for the growing number of Nepali job seekers. There has been a slow but gradual perceptible shift in the government policy on migration from promotion to protection and welfare initiatives. Various reform measures have been introduced in strengthening the legal and administrative framework regulating overseas employment including the amendment of Foreign Employment Act 2007.
However, the government should have a long-term plan, which includes a policy of integration. To maximize the benefits of migration, not only is a reform of the migration system required but what is also needed is a conceptual shift to a full recognition of returnee migrants as ‘development agents’ and as a source of innovation and investment. Policies to foster reintegration will not only allow people to migrate voluntarily but also put an end to the vicious circle of labor migration from Nepal.
The author works on issues of labor migration in Asia