Labour migration has been crucial means to earn livelihood for many Nepalese households since the beginning of the 1990s. Slow and stagnant economic growth of the country, unemployment, rampant corruption and a decade long civil war and conflict triggered the minds of young Nepali working population to migrate to foreign countries in search for better employment opportunities and living.Going abroad for employment and sending remittance since then became a popular trend and an important strategy for many Nepalese households to earn for their livelihood.
The researches indicate that today nearly 50 percent of every household in Nepal has at least one person working abroad. Labour migration with the improvement in the livelihood of the Nepalese people has contributed towards improving the country's economy through remittance. Labour migrants are the source of remittance which accounts for as much as quarter of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP)and more than 30 percent of Annual National Budget. Remittance have had huge contribution towards the economy of Nepal as the poverty level has significantly reduced over the years and the income distribution has also improved amongst the lower and lower middle quarters of the society, compared to the past.
The ongoing COVID-19 outbreak has led to sharp escalation of job losses globally. The latest data by the International Labour Organization (ILO) reveals that amongst all, the pandemic have had devastating effect on workers in the informal economy sector who represent the most vulnerable in the labour market. Almost 1.6 billion informal economy workers in the world have been hugely affected due to the economic crisis created by the pandemic. With the whole world suffering from the crisis, the Nepalese working population is not an exception. Millions of Nepalese working as labour migrants in the countries abroad have lost their jobs amidst the crisis and majority belong in the informal economy sector. Covid-19 has already put many Nepali migrant workers out of work in the Gulf countries where most of the Nepalese citizens work in the informal economy sector. According to an assessment by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the fall in the remittance is likely to range from 15 to 20 percent this year, with Nepal's projected GDP declining from 8.5 percent to as low as 2.5 percent.
With huge number of Nepalese becoming jobless abroad due to the economic crisis brought in by the pandemic, Nepalese government has started repatriating back the citizens who are stranded in these countries. The initial repatriation includes those who are out of jobs, with no money to sustain themselves, whose visas have expired, who have health issues, women who are pregnant and the ones who have received amnesty. The government has expectation that as many as 400000 migrant workers will be returning back home mainly from the Gulf countries and Malaysia, amongst which about 100000 of them will do so immediately. The repatriation has already started with thousands of citizens coming in which has led to the beginning of big reverse migration, the country has ever seen before.
On June 11, first batch of over 300 Nepalese women migrants landed at the Tribhuvan International Airport on two separate flights who were granted amnesty by Kuwait government in May for either overstaying after their visa ended or staying undocumented. On June 19, 148 Nepalese were brought back home from United Arab Emirates (UAE), amongst which 101 were women and 47 were men. Amongst 101 women, 94 of them were pregnant. With that, everyday several chartered flights are coming in from various countries which are bringing in citizens stranded there, consisting of high percentage of women migrants.
As it has been observed, women are bearing the brunt of the economic crisis of the pandemic more than anybody else. The devastation of COVID-19 is not evenly distributed as more than 40 percent women have lost their jobs compared to less than 30 percent job losses for men, says a data by the United Nations. Women has been hit harder by the economic fallout which had led to large number of Nepalese women migrants returning back to the country in the repatriation process. As large number are returning back to Nepal due to COVID-19 pandemic, there lies a major challenge in the shoulder of the government to reintegrate themsocio-economicallywithout any delay. The failure would mean another catastrophe near soon for economic survival.
Nepal government's economic response to the COVID-19 crisis has been slow and steady as compared to other South Asian nations. Although government claims that the returnee migrants will be employed through various employment schemes, it seems to insufficient to cover that large number of migrants returning back home in such short period of time. Due to the economic fallout, finding jobs won't be easy for these returnees. Initiativesand support from the government where direct cash is put in the hands of the returnees for their survival are also lacking. With job and income losses, many migrants are not even able to pay the price for the flights that government has allocated to bring them back. Not only that, there are major repercussions that they might face after they manage to return back home. The major one is having to face financial burden from the exorbitant interest rates from the loans that they might have taken to go for foreign employment.
Many have also sold of their property like land and house to venture out in the overseas job market, but the today's tide is against them. These people have lost everything in a shortest of a time, which makes survival in the home country a nightmare! To stop any social or political crisis ahead, government needs to take measures to reach out and help these returnee migrants come out of the burden that they have faced during such time of crisis. One such intervention could be immediate personal cash incentives, another could be subsidized loans for productivity increment in economic sectors where Nepal has comparative advantage over neighbouring countries and world market at large. One such sector could be commercial agriculture (vegetable, fruits, cereal, livestock, poultry, fisheries etc.), classified micro and cottage industry of essential and exportable goods, forest and medicinal herbs, with combination of government-guaranteed buy-back arrangements, marketing support and e-commerce.
Furthermore, Government needs to introduce various projects which offer subsided loans to the returnee women migrants which help them set up small businesses such as tailoring and handicraft shops, beauty parlours, vegetable and fruit shops,sanitized food stalls, eateries and home stay possibly forging partnership with AirBNB like global 'service enterprises', vending business, momo chains, and and so on,when the intensity of the pandemic subsides.
Government budget need to be allocated from a gender perspective so that women and disadvantaged groups are not left behind. Financial inclusion is vital so that these groups can benefit without any exclusion. Without gender lens,any efforts to mitigate the economic fallout of COVID-19 will be inefficient hence government should have gender-sensitive response to the COVID-19. Country or the world cannot prosper if half of the population are left behind.
The author is the alumna of Gender and Development Studies at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand.