Nepal - Millions of Nepalese overseas workers are facing tough choices about how to respond to the April 25 earthquake that could have profound and immediate impacts on household and national economies.
With just a paper mask for protection, Rasmilah Shrestha has begun clearing the debris from her Chautara home. At night she says looters appear searching the ruins for anything of value. © IOM 2015
“Overseas remittances account for at least 30 per cent of Nepal’s GDP and are the only thing keeping tens of thousands of families from slipping back into poverty,” said IOM Nepal’s Chief of Mission Maurizio Busatti.
“If, as we expect, this money is to be focused on rebuilding, how will they pay for their children’s education, for health care and the basic necessities? There’s a real danger the small savings of the overseas workers will be wiped out forcing them to stay abroad, away from their families for many more years than expected.”
The rear of Rasmilah Shrestha's house in Chautara, Nepal collapsed into a ravine. Now she’s faced with rebuilding without the help of her husband, one of 2.2 million Nepalese working overseas. © IOM 2015
The government’s inaugural migration report in 2104 captures the meteoric rise of the overseas worker over the past two decades: in 1993/94, just 3,605 people left the country to work overseas; the figure last year was over 520,000.
An estimated 2.2 million Nepalese are currently working abroad, primarily in the Gulf and Malaysia. Experts say the unregulated flow of migrants into India where there are no immigration checks for incoming Nepalese, could add an additional one million people to the toll. An estimated USD 5 billion was remitted in 2014 through formal channels: the value of funds sent home via informal channels is unknown.
According to government figures, a disproportionate number of migrant workers – roughly one in five – come from the 15 districts most damaged by earthquakes: remittances account for 22 per cent of household income in Sindhupalchok district and nearly 28 per cent in Gorkha, the two worst-affected districts where IOM has established its field hubs.
Rasmilah Shrestha’s husband Hemant is one of the people wrestling with what to do next. The earthquake reduced most of the family’s four-story shop-house in Chautara to rubble. Miraculously no one was killed when the walls collapsed onto the street, but as the dust settled so too did the reality of her situation and that of many families across the quake zone.
Data: Asian Development Bank
“I’ve only been married for six months and my husband left almost immediately to work in Portugal,” she said gesturing to what was once a child’s bedroom wall where framed pictures of her young nephew look out across a street strewn with smashed bricks, timber and crushed appliances. “Now he will have to work for many years so we can build again. It is very hard for both of us. I miss him… and want him to come home to help our family rebuild. Now we only have Viber (social media app) to keep us together.”
Economist Chandan Sapkota sees two possible scenarios emerging in the coming months, both of which will be heavily influenced by the success of efforts of the government and international community in the coming months.
In the first, overseas workers may flock home to rebuild, cutting the value of remittances. Household finances will suffer and pressure will be applied to both the government and central bank which will already be feeling the pinch if the numbers of overseas visitors to Nepal does not rebound in a timely manner.
In the second scenario, a lack of paying jobs forces greater numbers of Nepalese overseas, creating a labor shortage at home but boosting the overall value of remittances. A month after the earthquake, the unknown is the timing of these migration flows. “Whatever happens there’s going to be more migration in the coming years,” said Sapkota.