Reverse migration puts spotlight on social, economic reintegration of returnees


Nepali migrants across the world, primarily in the Gulf countries, Malaysia and India, have experienced diverse impacts of the COV- ID-19 pandemic, owing to both the precarious nature of their jobs and less than desirable living conditions.

According to a report on “Rapid Assessment of Nepal Migrant Workers’ Situation in Major Destination Countries during the COVID-19 Pandemic’ published by the Netherlands-based Nepal Policy Institute and Kathmandu-based Migration Lab this week, the anticipated and unprecedented reverse migration has put their social and economic reintegration in the spotlight.

The success of the reintegration programmes currently under government consideration — whether through wage-employment or self-employment — or how swiftly they are integrated into their communities rest on how well they reflect the aspirations, interests and experiences of the migrants themselves.

The report captures the current situation of migrant workers to inform the government’s policy-making efforts as it braces for an unprecedented return of migrant workers.

This report, largely based on phone surveys, had interviewed 625 migrants based in eight primary destination countries (five Gulf countries, Malaysia and India).

Migration to these countries is a temporary phenomenon.

“On the one hand, a high share of migrants had thought about returning to Nepal; while on the other, many seem to be in conflict whether they should return, given the uncertainties of employment prospects as well as increasing cases of COVID-19 infection in Nepal,” says the report.

Returning to Nepal would mean navigating the complicated repatriation process, paying expensive airfare, spending two-weeks in poorly equipped quarantine centres and potentially facing further lockdown in Nepal.

The pandemic has revealed the sub-standard living and employment situation of migrants working abroad. A majority of respondents (58 per cent) were worried about being infected due to their working conditions while a lesser proportion (17 per cent) reported concerns about getting infected due to living conditions.

The levels of exposure given the cramped and unhygienic conditions of the camps or shared rooms is still comparatively lower for individuals than similar situations in the workplaces.

There are also concerns about post-return plans. An overwhelming majority of migrants (80 per cent) reported that they were interested in engaging in self-employment, either in agriculture or non-agriculture sector if they returned to Nepal.

The remaining preferred to be engaged in wage-employment either in agriculture or non-agriculture sectors.

The combination of low earnings but high living costs makes wage employment opportunities in Nepal less attractive according to migrants in the focus group discussions. While the government has prioritised policies and programmes for returnees and has announced them in the annual budget, it is evident from the survey that 70 per cent of respondents are completely unaware about these programmes, and only an extremely low (2 per cent) minority knew how to access them.

Among respondents, a vast majority (80 per cent) reported lack of finance as the major constraint in engaging in self-employment, given that much of their earnings abroad was spent on month-to-month sustenance for families back home. In addition, half of the migrants reported lack of skill/training as a major constraint, followed by lack of professional networks, insufficient information of the local context and cumbersome administrative barriers as other constraints.

For the small share of returnees interested in wage employment, lack of skills, training and appropriate experience, lack of information regarding opportunities and lack of access to appropriate networks were reported as key obstacles.

This study reveals that the plan and programmes targeting returnees need to emphasise the implementation aspects starting with information dissemination on the kinds of programmes that exist and clear instructions on how to access them.

“For successful reintegration of returnee migrants, the government must ensure that vulnerable groups such as undocumented migrant workers, which includes a high share of women, are rescued and not left out from the reintegration process and programmes funded by the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund,” the report suggested.

A version of this article appears in e-paper on July 17, 2020, of The Himalayan Times.