Nepal: Economic migrants spark unlikely shifts in power

No country in the world is more reliant on remittances than Nepal, where it makes up 32 percent of the GDP.

Fellows 2017

By Abby Seiff

July 18, 2017

Also published by Al Jazeera

Each day, thousands of Nepalis fly out of Kathmandu for work. They serve in restaurants in Europe and farm plantations in East Asia, but an increasingly large percentage are employed in menial jobs in the Gulf states, where work visas are easy to come by, and labour is badly needed.

Today, about three million Nepalis, some 10 percent of the population, work abroad. Their migration lends an outsized role to the economy. According to a UN report released last month, no country in the world is more reliant on remittances than Nepal, where it makes up 32 percent of the GDP. That figure has nearly doubled since 2007 when it stood at 17 percent.

Much has been written about the risks attendant in such migrant labour, the worksite deaths, abusive bosses and exploitation, not to mention the vast debt usually incurred to procure papers and jobs.

Few people now go into the labour force without some awareness of these risks. But to speak to migrants and their families, you will far more often hear of sacrifice and opportunities. Women who were child brides now send their daughters to school; men who spent decades living away from their families return to see their college-educated children flourish.

Rahul Yadav gets ready for school. The 14-year-old boy lives in Potohr, a small, extremely poor village in the Dhanusha district. Located in the Terai, Nepal's plains region, the district has seen some of the fastest growth in migration and now sends more migrants abroad than anywhere else. Rahul's father has worked in Qatar for nearly a decade, and the money sent home has been used to build a house and send him, his brother, and sister to school. [Abby Seiff/Al Jazeera]

Babita Kumari Yadav helps her daughter Arti, six, get ready for school. Though Babita did not go to school, she and her husband hope Arti will reach grade 10 and get her school leaving certificate. [Abby Seiff/Al Jazeera]



Rina Yadav sits inside her in-laws' house with her newborn son and two-year-old daughter. Her husband works in Saudi Arabia and the couple uses video chat to communicate. Though Rina had no education, she and her husband plan to use his remittances to send both of their children to private school. [Abby Seiff/Al Jazeera]


Rina Yadav shows a photo of her husband on her phone. From a deeply conservative family, Rina has rarely stepped outside her in-laws' home compound since getting married three years ago. 'I want to educate my daughter,' she says. 'I know from being illiterate how we can face problems in life. [Abby Seiff/Al Jazeera]


A man stands outside his home in Dhanusha district. With no local jobs apart from subsistence agriculture, many men say they have no option but to seek work abroad. [Abby Seiff/Al Jazeera]


Construction projects have sprung up across Sabalia village, which has one of the highest rates of migration in Dhanusha district. [Abby Seiff/Al Jazeera] 


Payal Gupta, 12, and her 16-year-old brother Rohit chat in their parent's teashop after school. Their older brothers were set to leave in two weeks for jobs in Dubai. Payal is top in her class, and her family hopes she will become a doctor. 'I know my brothers are going abroad to build a house and support my education,' she says. [Abby Seiff/Al Jazeera] 


Women harvest rice in Dhanusha district. Though women have always carried out agricultural work, their burden has increased as men go abroad. [Abby Seiff/Al Jazeera]


Kalapana Thapa takes care of a newborn goat in her Jhapa district home. Her husband has worked in Qatar for 18 years, and the money has been used to support their son's education, build up their house, and buy land. [Abby Seiff/Al Jazeera]


Kalpana Thapa in front of her home in Amar Basti village. The village has been transformed in recent decades. Today every house is made of concrete and residents have access to electricity. Without husbands around, women such as Kalpana have turned into forceful leaders in the community. [Abby Seiff/Al Jazeera]


Anit Adhitkari brushes her youngest daughter's hair as her husband, Udaya, gets ready for work. After more than ten years abroad in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, he returned three years ago and has managed to make a successful business as a taxi driver. His youngest daughter, Upasana, 'wants to be a doctor,' says Udaya. 'The older daughter wants to be an engineer, but whatever they want to study we'll support it.' [Abby Seiff/ Al Jazeera] 


8-year-old Upasana waits for the school bus in Amar Basti village. Her parents hope she will become a doctor and continue to work even after marriage. 'I will try to get a son-in-law who will let her work - like in foreign cultures,' says Udaya. I like the culture of Western countries where men and women are treated equally. [Abby Seiff/Al Jazeera]


Darshana Nepali, 16, comforts her cousins as his sisters look on. Darshana's mother works in Malaysia, while her uncle - the children's father - works in Qatar. He had left one week earlier after spending several months visiting them at their home in the Jhapa district's Rangeela Chowk village and the toddler was having trouble adjusting to his absence. [Abby Seiff/ Al Jazeera]  


Ramaya Tamang, 65, chats with her 16-year-old grandson Bibek in their home in Sindulpachok district in the highlands. She and her husband have been caring for Bibek and his 11-year-old sister for almost a decade while their mother works in Iraq. Ramaya's daughter went abroad after her husband died while working in Saudi Arabia.  'My granddaughter doesn't call her Mommy, she calls me Mommy. She doesn't want to talk with her mother much. She says 'she left at a very young age, you are my mommy,' Ramaya tells us. [Abby Seiff/Al Jazeera]


Ram Pramad Sah speaks on the phone while overseeing construction on his large, multistory-home in the Dhanusha district. He has spent 12 years working in Qatar, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia and used the money to educate his two sons, buy land, and build his home. 'I went because I didn't want to only work on the farm. It was very difficult and I had stopped studying and I was married. I thought it would be easier to go there,' he says. He hopes his sons become engineers. [Abby Seiff/Al Jazeera]


Nema Sangya Tamang works on a newly constructed house in Sindhulpachok district. Much of the money for the new home came from his children. The 55-year-old has three sons and three daughters, all of whom work abroad or plan to go. 'I was uneducated, so I know why education is needed. I asked them to at least pass grade 12 but they didn't want to work on the farm. I had no option but to let them go abroad. To have a job you have to know someone. I'm very poor, I don't have that connection - it's very hard in a village,' he said. [Abby Seiff/Al Jazeera]