When Umesh Pasman’s parents said goodbye, they did not expect to see their son again for two years.
The 19-year-old was leaving his tiny village on the southern plains of Nepal, where many people still live in simple mud huts, for the glistening towers of Qatar to work as an electrician.
But two weeks later Umesh returned home — in a coffin. According to the accompanying death certificate, he died of acute respiratory distress syndrome, septic shock and multiple organ failure.
His parents had borrowed 150,000 rupees (around $1,493), a huge sum in rural Nepal, to afford the recruitment fees to send Umesh abroad. But now, instead of receiving a steady income from the money they had hoped he would send home, they faced a further bill of 150,000 rupees just to cover the cost of his funeral.
Every day, almost 1,500 Nepalis join the long queues at Kathmandu’s airport to follow their dreams of a job abroad, typically in the Gulf or Malaysia. Over 525,000 Nepalis were issued permits to work overseas in 2013-14, well over double the number issued just five years ago.
According to an Open Society Foundations report on migrant workers, Nepal now sends the most workers abroad per capita of any country in Asia.
And for many, migration works. Official remittances account for over 29 percent of Nepal’s total GDP, and have increased by 400 percent between 2003 and 2011. At the arrivals gate of Kathmandu’s airport, dozens of migrants arrive off each flight balancing bulging bags and flat-screen TVs on their trolleys.
But wait till they have left, and another set of trolleys emerge from the terminal carrying a very different load — coffins bearing the bodies of migrant workers, like Umesh Pasman. Every day, three or four are flown back to grieving families in Nepal. In 2013, at least 185 Nepalis died in Qatar alone.
Exploitation starts at home
Media stories of migrant deaths, non-payment of wages and appalling labor camps have shone a harsh light on the mistreatment of migrant workers abroad, but for many their exploitation starts not on mega construction sites in the Gulf, but in remote, poverty-stricken villages across Nepal.
It usually begins with an introduction to a local recruitment broker, or agent. Typically, "the individual agent [is] someone personally known to the migrant worker... Consequently, migrant workers have great trust in their agents to look after their interests," said the Open Society Foundations report.
That trust, and the desperation to leave the country, makes migrants especially vulnerable to abuse. "[Nepalese migrant workers] go without asking questions," said Nilambar Badal, director of the Migrants' Centre in Nepal, which advises migrants of the risks of working overseas.
"And so every penny is extracted from them."
You have to trust the brokers. I have been assured that my agent will try to get me the salary he promised, but even if that does not happen, I will still go.
Nepali worker on the risks of working with brokers
While the government has set the maximum legal recruitment fee for Gulf countries at 70,000 rupees (about $707), it is common for local brokers to charge migrants double that. And the only way many can afford such fees is by taking out loans at annual interest rates that can be as high as 60 percent.
These fees must be paid up-front, and so when migrants are passed from local brokers to manpower agencies in Kathmandu, they have already started down a path to employment abroad, which is very difficult to turn back on.
Migrants can be left waiting for months for their jobs to materialize, and with the interest payments on their loans piling up, they are under pressure to accept any offer, even if the salary or job is different than what was promised.
Manpower agencies – who give themselves such names as Marvelous Manpower, Dreams Unlimited and Paradise International – help to arrange the necessary paperwork and permits for work overseas.
But the compulsory pre-departure orientation training can be skipped, health certificates can be bought and work contracts are often handed out at the gates of the airport, hours before a migrant is due to depart. With their bags packed and their farewells said, migrants feel it is too late to change their minds if the terms are not what they had verbally agreed. The loss of money, and face, is too great.
One worker who was waiting for his contract at a departure gate said: "You have to trust the brokers. I have been assured that my agent will try to get me the salary he promised, but even if that does not happen, I will still go."
There is little expectation that Nepal’s government will crack down on these abuses. Remittances are too valuable to its economy, and postings in the department of foreign employment, which oversees migrant recruitment, are viewed by some as an opportunity for personal enrichment. The department has seen eight director generals come and go in two and a half years, and the state minister for labor and employment reportedly owns a manpower agency himself.
While there are policies in place to compensate migrant workers who have been exploited, their implementation is weak. The Foreign Employment Promotion Board, which is responsible for protecting the rights and interests of migrant workers, oversees a welfare fund to compensate the families of migrants who have died, but although deaths and accidents are commonplace, the fund currently has a surplus of over $21 million.
The mistreatment of Nepal's migrant workers abroad is inter-linked with the exploitation they suffer at home. The non-payment of wages in destination countries causes family strife in Nepal.
Families that borrowed large amounts of money to send relatives abroad are forced to borrow even more when money is not sent back home.
Furthermore, huge debts at home make workers more vulnerable to forced-labor overseas. The desperation for a job abroad also means some migrants will accept jobs they do not have the skills for, which puts them at greater risk of accidents or death. And the deaths of migrant workers are compounded by inadequate compensation mechanisms in both countries.
Nevertheless, the number of Nepalis seeking work abroad continues to soar.
A new report from the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium explains: "The fact that many individuals and their families are prepared to take on these risks illustrates the level of returns that international migration is perceived to bring, even if the reality may be different."
This is the first of a four-part series by journalists and researchers looking at the human story behind migration. The pieces were brought together by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, a global program focusing livelihoods and service delivery in conflict-affected situations.