Armed Conflict a Major Cause of Migration in Nepal

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Migrant workers at a Qatari construction site, exposed to some of the toughest working conditions in the world!

By Sumera Reshi


Since 1945 more than 70 civil wars have been fought around the world. These civil wars claimed approximately 20 million deaths and displaced more than 67 million people. The causes of civil unrest have always been discussed by academics and policy-makers alike and the argument has been discussed and debated whether poor countries face greater risk of conflict or not. It has been deliberated that poorer countries face a greater risk of conflict. This theory was propounded by Collier and Hoeffler and they called it an “opportunity cost” view of conflict. According to them conflict is most likely to occur where economic gains are high and opportunity costs are low.

Two social scientists, Fearon and Laitin explored that there is an association between poverty and civil wars and they said conflict should be in part due to weak state capacity and geographic conditions that support insurgency, play a significant role in the incidence of civil wars. According to Fearon and Laitin, 2003, the presence of mountainous or difficult terrain, poorly served by roads does increase insurgency. Studies have shown that the lower economic development triggers more conflict.

Often the conflict forces people to seek shelter in innocuous regions or migrate to places which are benign. This is what happened in Nepal, although its population has been mobile throughout its history. Since long before the formation of the modern Nepali nation-state, the practice of transhumance has seen farmers and their livestock migrate seasonally in search of greener pastures. Later, migration was driven by the government policies, as the ambitious but cash-strapped Shah family, which founded the first modern Kingdom of Nepal in the mid-18th century, coerced the lower classes into working and fighting all over the country for little or no remuneration. The peasant classes also found migration to be an effective means to escape abusive overlords in an oppressive feudal system.

The Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal went through an anarchic & chaotic phase. On February 13, 1996, citing the government’s failure to respond to a memorandum outlining its demands—such as the abolition of royal privileges, the creation of a new constitution and renegotiation of the border with India—the Maoists officially launched their insurgency, the “People ’s War. ” The cardinal objective of the “People’s War” was to overthrow the constitutional monarchy and to establish a republic through a constituent assembly.

Initially, the Maoists enjoyed some popular support for their cause. This was particularly true among the lesser-educated rural population or ethnic groups, many of whom had very little contact with the government other than through the police and a very poor health and education system at the village level. Over time, however, the Maoists’ increased use of violence, intimidation and brutality which alienated many former supporters.

Over the years, the government’s counterinsurgency has taken many forms, including roadblocks, security checks and blockades of food supplies and shipments of essential goods, all of which have had serious ramifications for daily life in Nepal. In this context, the government is also responsible for a range of conspicuous child rights abuses, such as unlawful killings, torture, forced disappearance and rape etc.

There have long been many vulnerable groups in Nepal, which increased as the conflict spread throughout the countryside. According to INSEC’s Human Rights Yearbook 2004, the armed conflict shows patterns of the security forces attacking the lower caste, indigenous Janajatis and Dalit, among others, and of Maoists attacking the higher caste Chhetris, Brahmins and Thakuris.

With Nepal already one of the world’s poorest countries, the armed conflict has contributed to further degeneration of the low standard of living of many Nepalese children. Access to health and social services, as well as families’ basic needs, has been significantly affected and left many households overburdened.

Many children in Nepal are growing up in an environment shaped by guns, bombs, bandhs (strikes), killings, the sight of dead bodies and the fear of war, leading them to be preoccupied with thoughts and fear about violence and other psychosocial consequences. They worry about losing their homes, their families and their education.

Young people also suffer from restrictions on their movement due to the armed conflict. Restricted by fear of explosions, abductions and arbitrary arrests on their way to and from school, young people are not able to move around freely to play and entertain themselves. As a result, some young people express a loss of hope about finding a better future.

With the increasing chaos and uncertainty during Maoist insurgency, people were left with no other option than to leave to safer lands. However, there are no reliable figures available to determine the number of Napalese people who are refugees or internally displaced. Nevertheless, since 2001, the flow of migrants to India has significantly increased, suggesting a clear link between migration and the conflict. The number of Nepalese who have been forced to flee to India could be as high as 500,000, according to the Profile of the Displaced in Nepal, compiled by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Global IDP Project. Other Nepalese have fled to the Middle East, Malaysia and elsewhere.

Some of the realistic estimate of Nepalese people who are internally displaced as a result of the armed conflict is between 100,000 and 200,000, according to the Global IDP Project. The lack of an official definition of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Nepal further complicates efforts to determine the size of this population. Global estimates indicate that approximately 80 per cent of all displaced populations are generally women and children under age of 18. However, the Nepali organization Community Study and Welfare Centre (CSWC) estimates that the number of internally displaced children in Nepal may be as high as 100,000 to 120,000.

According to a 2005 report by Child Workers in Nepal, cited by UNICEF, over 40,000 Nepalese children are estimated to have been displaced over the course of the Maoist uprising. Tens of thousands have been abducted for short periods for political indoctrination by the Maoists. Some of these children have then been recruited into the Maoist forces or militia. Education has suffered, particularly due to enforced closures during strikes, which have cut the school year to nearly half in some areas. Teachers have been threatened, assaulted and even killed. Schools in conflict-affected areas have been used for political meetings and enforced indoctrination sessions, have been bombed or attacked, and some have been turned into barracks. 

The Nepalese government has largely ignored the internally displaced population since the outset of the armed conflict. Similarly, even after many years of war, the UN and international community still tend to approach their activities in Nepal from a development perspective, resulting in little or no focus on the displaced population.

The causes of displacement or migration are multifold. Sources in Nepal indicate that families are frightened that their children might be abducted under a Maoist campaign of “One household – one fighter,” encourage their children to flee from their villages. In some cases, entire families may flee together to safer lands.

A newspaper report heading “Villagers Flee Maoist Abduction,” reported that over 100 families from Nisi, Bobang and Andhikarichaur VDCs in Baglung district had fled to the district headquarters, fearing that Maoists would abduct their children. Sixteen schools in the villages closed after the students and their parents had fled.

In other cases, families are forced even more directly from their homes. In September 2004, more than 110 members of 25 families of Jumla district moved to Surkhet district headquarters, Birendranagar, after the Maoists announced that locals either had to join their ranks or move out, according to the Himalayan Times, “Maoist Diktat Triggers Exodus,” September 25, 2004.

The article explained that after the difficult journey to Surkhet, the families were camped across the compound of the Nepal Red Cross Society, which provided tents, rice, clothes and necessary items. Local sources reported to Watch list that approximately 92 people, including 12 children under age of 5 and 32 school-age children between ages 6 and 14 (16 boys and 16 girls), were still living in this temporary camp in October 2004.

Conflict has affected almost all aspects of the life in Nepal. There are, however, diverse opinions regarding the causes of the conflict. Nevertheless, political mismanagement, corruption, unemployment and under employment, economic stagnation, discrimination and a widening gap between rural and urban settings are the major ramifications of the prolonged conflict.

The armed conflict, besides creating many other bad impacts, disrupted the ordinary lives across Nepal. It has affected the social order displacing a large number of people. As the conflict intensified, people left their native places either forced by the situations or in search and economic opportunities. A greater chunk of people siphoned into big cities in or around the world.

There are other varied causes of the migration besides conflict and one of the causes of migration is natural disasters. Since Nepal is also prone to natural disasters like earthquakes, people tend to migrate to safer locations. On 25 April, 2015, an earthquake of the magnitude of 7.8 hit Nepal claiming lives of eight million people.

According to migration expert, Manuel Orozco natural disasters likely trigger greater migration. Some 2.5 million households (60 per cent of the population) received remittance since Nepal’s economy is already dependent on foreign remittances even before the earthquake struck the Himalayan country which again suggests that the conflict played a crucial role in migration.

Even after the elected government is in power, the conflict has not died down in reality. The impact of the ongoing Madheshi agitation in Nepal in general and in the Terai region in particular is quite severe. For more than one-and-a-half months now, life in the Terai region has been paralyzed. All the educational institutions, hospitals, government offices, industries, banks, shops, agricultural activities and transport services have been crippled. Most of the essential items including food grains, petrol and gas are in short supply. Those who depend on daily wages for their livelihood are suffering the most. Movement of people is restricted because of continuous curfew in several places and also due to the deteriorating law and order situation.

However, the government and the main political parties in Nepal are least sensitive to the needs of their own people; leave alone their concerns about security challenges such a protracted crisis that could pose another challenge efor Nepal and India.

Kathmandu (Nepal) – Suresh Thapa, 34, is grocery shopkeeper in Kathmandu, Kalanki. He has been running grocery shop for four years when he returned back from Qatar. He worked in Qatar for 40 months in a biggest grass farm. Now, he is planning to go to UAE for employment.

“I used to run transportation services before going to Qatar, but I couldn’t succeed. Now, it is difficult to run a shop and I am deciding to go to Dubai for employment. During Maoist conflict, I worked in transportation sector. I wasn’t able to run this business smoothly because of constant bandhs and chaos,” Said Thapa. Now, small volume of business is difficult to keep his family running and happy. He lives with his wife, a son and a daughter. His house is in Dhading, beside Kathmandu. He came to Kathmandu to set up a business before he departed to Qatar.

“I have to leave my country so that my children can have a good future and a standard education”, said Thapa. “I lost goods worth of Rs. 150,000 (Nepalese Rupees) in the earthquake” he added. The earthquake that hit Nepal on 25th April, 2015 was of the magnitude of 7.8 on Richter scale and its aftershocks killed nearly Nine thousand people and more than 900,000 structures were destroyed or damaged.

He established his own small business soon after he left his schooling. Running a grocery shop wasn’t that easy. He took loan and he had to repay the loan as well. As ill luck would have it, on 25 April earthquake damaged his shop as well. The damage was such that he was unable to run his small grocery shop smoothly. Now Thapa has no other option left other than rethinking of going abroad for employment. In Nepal, he could hardly save money for rainy days. Moreover, political unrest, on and off strikes affects the business, so the way out is to discover safer lands for better earning.

This is not only the story of Suresh Thapa but many a youth and people of Nepal wish to leave Nepal in order to win better earnings. Gun Bahadur Fagami, who happens to be Thapa’s friend, worked in Malaysia and Qatar earlier. He went to Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recently to keep his heath and hearth in good state. Lack of job opportunities, inexistent industrial sector and age old traditional farming system in Nepal has become order of the day. That is why people in general and youth in particular are choosing foreign employment. Recruiting agencies are taking more money than what government has set the standards for the recruitment cost.

According to the statistics provided by the Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE), more than 500,000 youths went abroad to seek employment for better earnings. The government of Nepal opened 11o countries for the foreign job. In 2014 Fiscal year (Mid July 2014- Mid July 2015) approximately 512,887 youth took approval from DoFE for going abroad for employment.

Data revealed by the Government of Nepal shows that after 25th April earthquake, youth foreign employment has decreased. Soon after the earthquake hit Nepal, 42 per cent of labor approval for foreign employment decreased. Annual approval also decreased. In the fiscal year of 2013/2014, DoFE had given approval to 527,814 labor for foreign employment. It was 2.90 of per cent below than the last fiscal year.

A Nepali parliamentarian, Pemba Lama said that hoping new constitution will open new jobs but a lot of things have to done in future. Shee said that in new constitution, employment opportunities for youth are the top priority and a fundamental right of the people of Nepal.

Nepal has made federal republic constitution recently after the eight years of peace agreement between government and Maoist rebels. Nepal has amended the existing acts and laws related to migration.

Nepalese government has decided sending its people abroad for employment with free visa and free tickets. The government was considering the move since July 5, 2015 for the Gulf countries and Malaysia. However, this has not been implemented in reality due to government’s inaction.

People have been cheated not only in sending countries but also in destination countries in the name of employment. The salaries are not what they are promised in the sending countries. The work load and the living conditions are not either up to the mark. Everyday 3 to 4 Nepalis die abroad. It is estimated that around 4,000,000 Nepalese are in foreign job other than India.

The number of Nepali females working abroad has shown a significant surge. In the fiscal year, 2014 22,028 females and 490,859 males received approval from DoFE. The major destination of Nepalis youth are Malaysia and Middle East countries. Remittance sent by three million Nepali migrant workers is as much as 29 per cent of Nepal’s . Last year it was just 25 per cent of GDP which shows that after the massive earthquake in 2015, remittance flow has gone up.

Today greater number of Nepali’s are seeking overseas jobs and they have been driven out by the lack of cash and better job opportunities back home. Data revealed by the Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE) says that about 1,500 Nepali’s leave Nepal daily for employment. The estimate since two decades is 3.45 million.

The people at the helm of affairs have failed to deliver employment and livelihood to its people and in such a scenario; people have opted for the only known path to them since two decades which is migration. However, outside India, the largest intake of Nepali workforce is GCC and Malaysia. Many Nepali’s are working in GCC countries like Qatar, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates (UAE). They work either as taxi drivers or in restaurants. The only reason of them being in UAE is to earn a better living.

“I am here to earn bread and butter for my family. In Nepal we have inefficient government who are least bothered about the commoners. We are caught between inefficient government and increasing Maoist activities and political uncertainty. What option is for the people like me other than to leave home and earn in far off lands,” said Dinesh Thapa, a taxi driver in Abu Dhabi.

Shanti Bastola works in a beauty parlor. She works 12 hours a day in order to earn a living and save a chunk of her hard earned money for his only son Sushant who lives with his grandmother in Nepal. “I save every bit to save Sushant’s future as we don’t have many opportunities in Nepal,” said Shanti.

Conflict has called upon the health of the people of Nepal. Maoist campaign since 1996 and earlier monarchy has crippled and make the Himalayan Kingdom quite fragile. People are forced to leave their cozy homes, and their near and dear ones. This is relatively evident that there is an association between poverty and conflict. Conflict intensifies in places where poverty is rampant and high. The more the poverty, more is the conflict which triggers migration at a high number. Same has happened in Nepal. Today Nepal has fairly old population while as its young population is outside in other countries.

The writer of this fellowship article is solely responsible for the opinions and views expressed herein.

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