Migration in Nepal: Five keys for understanding a mass phenomenon

Working abroad is a reality of the twenty first century for many Nepalis. It is transforming the country and fuelling rapid social and economic change. In this special report, Norlha examines the current situation and reveals how its new project, “Mahila: helping women deal with men’s migration” by which it aims to turn the existence of this overseas army into a positive force for future development.

 1. A massive phenomenon

More than 1.6 million Nepalis are working abroad and bringing in 6.7 billion dollars in 2015 alone according to reports by the UN and the World Bank. Poverty and a lack of opportunities in Nepal have fuelled the exodus of around 1300 people a day. In the twelve months from July 2014 to June 2015, almost half a million Nepalis obtained a labour permit to work abroad. It is almost ten times more than 15 years ago and this figure does not include the workers heading to India and those who migrate illegally.


Between 1993 and 2015, more than 3.8 million labour permits for emigration were issued in Nepal, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. It represents 14% of the country’s current population. Migrant workers stay away on average for two to three years.

Most migrant workers travel to Malaysia or one of the Persian Gulf countries.


Nepali workers are attracted by the higher wages and are mostly employed in low-skilled jobs such as construction, manufacturing, catering and domestic service.

While working conditions may be better than at home, cases of abuse and financial exploitation are common. A greater cause for concern is the growing number of Nepali workers who die abroad. The Nepal Ministry for Labour and Employment claims that 4,322 migrant workers were reported dead between 2008 to 2015, many of them due to accidents in the workplace.

 2. The migration gender-gap

The vast majority of migrant workers are men. It is difficult to establish the exact number of female migrants as many avoid formal channels to dodge periodic government bans imposed on them. This illegality leaves women migrants even more exposed to potential abuse abroad.

The 2011 Nepal Census, estimates that more than one in ten emigrants are women. Consequently, rural regions in Nepal are visibly marked by male emigration and, in some villages, most young men have left..


These migration patterns have a direct impact on the women left behind. To compensate for the lack of male workforce, a woman’s workload increases considerably. In rural regions, the phenomenon of the feminization of agriculture occurs. Women see their share of work in subsistence farming or as casual farm workers increase along with family and household chores which may see their working hours rise to up to 16 per day.

 3. Enormous financial inflows

The main aim of migrant workers is to send money home. The volume of remittances received by Nepal since the early 1990s has increased by more than 150 times. In 2015, more than 6.7 billion dollars entered the country according to the World Bank. In 2015, remittances accounted for a third of Nepal’s gross domestic product (GDP), which placed Nepal high on a scale of countries most dependent on migrant workers.


Remittances are usually the single largest source of income for families of migrant workers and are responsible for driving living standards upwards. According to Nepal Living Standards Survey, the bulk of remittances on average are used for daily expenses. Around a fifth is used to pay off the loans used to finance the emigration or for education costs and investment.

 4. A driver for change

Massive migration has had a major impact on social and economic evolution in Nepal where extreme poverty has fallen sharply. In 2010, 15% of Nepali were living on less than 1.9 dollars per day compared to 45% in 2003, according to the World Bank.

Migrant workers returning to Nepal bring back new skills that may have a positive impact on Nepali economic development. Migration is also likely to have reduced Nepal’s birth rate and boosted school enrolment.

There are benefits for women too in overcoming entrenched gender-based discrimination. While their workload may increase, the absence of family members forces them to become more independent and to take on a greater role in decision-making.

 5. An opportunity for long term development

The massive migration phenomenon and the financial inflows that accompany it provide an opportunity for development. However, the way in which remittances are used may affect the long term benefits.

Remittances need to be transferred through safe and cheap channels. Nowadays, many families from rural regions only have access to remittances through informal, expensive and unsafe transfer systems.

It is also essential that women have free access to the remittances they receive. Today, many women have limited control and it is other family members who make the decisions.

Finally, it is essential that part of the remittances are used for education and income generating activities. Too big a share of the money received today simply meets daily expenses and many families become trapped by the dependency on foreign income.

This situation has inspired Norlha to launch a new project in Gatlang in the district of Rasuwa, in Nepal: “Mahila: helping women deal with men’s migration.” Norlha will support women and girls from 260 families affected by migration for a period of three years. These women and girls will learn how best to use the remittances they receive.

Norlha hopes this project will end the circle of dependency on remittances and reunite families. It hopes to strengthen women and girls’ social and economic status in Nepal. Norlha is committed to a future where women and girls will be able to generate enough income themselves to pay their living costs and end the dependence on migration.