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Asia

Nepal quake likely to trigger greater migration

Before the recent quake, one of Nepal's major exports was labor, with many young people migrating as workers to the Gulf states, India or Malaysia. As Manuel Orozco tells DW this trend is now likely to intensify.

One of the long-term repercussions of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25 could be an increasing number of people forced to work abroad to provide for their families due to a scarcity of jobs. According to the Nepal living Standard household survey of 2010-11 of the Central Bureau of Statistics, the country's economy had already been dependent on foreign remittances even before the quake struck.

Nearly 60 percent of the population - i.e. some 2.5 million households - received remittances in Nepal. These flows represented nearly 40 percent of all income received among those households. Some economists estimate that at some times of the year, a quarter of the country's population is working outside the country.

The recent quake claimed the lives of more then 7,500 people and the UN estimates eight million people - nearly a third of Nepal's population - may have been affected by the earthquake, with at least two million people needing tents, water, food and medicines over the next three months.

In a DW interview, migration expert Manuel Orozco says the natural disaster will likely trigger even greater migration. While many Nepalis will likely remain internal refugees in neighboring areas, others may attempt to migrate elsewhere, India included.

Nepal Erdbeben Kathmandu Zerstörung

The recent quake claimed the lives of more than 7,500 people

DW: Before the quake, how big an issue was migration in Nepal?

Manuel Orozco: Nepali international migration is relatively new, dating back to the early 90s right after the end of monarchic rule. The political transition in the country in addition to a significant demand for foreign labor from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries had an immediate effect on international migration.

From that point on, Nepali migration grew from a few hundred thousand to more than two million people, mostly low-skilled laborers many of which came from rural areas of Nepal where agricultural work was restricted or purely low paid. Annually 400,000 Nepalis left the country to work elsewhere, particularly the GCC and Malaysia.

What role did this high-level migration play in both economic and population terms for the country?

This migratory flow has influenced income in the economy and turned migration into a central driver of economic growth. Specifically, worker remittances rose from $100 million in the early 2000 to $6.5 billion in 2014 amounting to 30 percent of the country's national economy.

The contribution of remittances to the economy has reflected the limited opportunities for economic growth and that human capital is the economy's most important resource. However, as of now this human resource is predominantly made up of low-skilled and low-paid foreign labor.

What has been the immediate impact of the recent earthquake in terms of internal migration?

Nepal is an economy whose population has traditionally experienced large migration from the rural to urban areas, or a few to search for arable land, which being highly expensive made it difficult for people to work it.

After the earthquake, the result will be mixed and associated both to reconstruction and resettlement. Many will likely stay as internal refugees in neighboring areas affected whereas others may attempt to migrate elsewhere, India included.

What long-term impact do you expect the earthquake to have in terms of migration?

The earthquake is likely to trigger greater migration or in the case of some migrants already abroad, to prolong their stay rather than return. Given the effect of the destruction, the economy will further struggle to handle new workers.

What can the government and the international community do to improve the situation?

The priority for Nepal is its reconstruction. However, the investment needed is far greater than prior to the earthquake. Specifically, the local agricultural economy has been affected due to the inability of the hundreds of thousands of Nepalis to work the land in shorter time.

Moreover, the reconstruction of infrastructure and employment generation will not take place in its entirety due to the significance of the efforts required to do so.

The role of the international community is twofold: first, to help in the reconstruction of an infrastructure that can help modernize the economy, and second, to introduce development strategies that rely on human capital.

Specifically, there should be two-pronged approaches to labor, one to expand labor migration contracts as a short-term measure to contribute to the reconstruction, and second, to invest in education and skills of youth and the labor force, in order to slowly transition the country from agriculture and informal into a knowledge- or skills-based economy.

Manuel Orozco is a senior fellow for migration, remittances and development at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington- based think-tank.