Changing the headlines on migration

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The road to the Global Compact on Migration in Marrakesh this week has not been smooth in a politically tense global environment as an anti-migration wave is fuelled by nationalism and xenophobia. On Monday, the United States, Australia, Hungary and some other eastern European states said they would not participate in the Compact.

While the adoption of the Global Compact on Migration deserves much credit, the road ahead is fraught with challenges of turning rhetoric into action. The agreement will be non-binding for the signatories, including Nepal.

Among the issues Nepal will have to start examining is the India corridor for Nepali migrant workers. Despite the high volume and remittances, India as a destination country has been overshadowed by Nepalis migrating to the Gulf, Malaysia and overseas. With all its complexities, informality and its seasonality, India is the elephant in the room in Nepal’s migration discourse.

The GCM will rake up this long-overlooked issue because by adopting the Compact, both Nepal and India are committing to make migration safe, orderly and regular, none of which characterise migration between the two neighbours at the moment. On the home-front, too, Nepal’s elected local governments are well placed to take ownership and begin keeping records of India-bound migrants.  

Extreme stories shape the Nepali public’s perception on migration: from stories of unspeakable abuse at one end, to tales of migrants-turned-millionaires on the other. While important, perhaps the average migrant also deserves attention, the ones who go abroad for a few years, get the jobs they were promised at the salary agreed, remit frequently, and come home better off than when they left.

These uneventful and mundane experiences may be the stories of a majority of Nepali migrants, but fall through the cracks in media coverage of the issue. Because these tales  never make it to the headlines, the risk is that only the ones of extreme hardship or reward shape public opinion on migration.

One female domestic worker returnee from Makwanpur told me: “There is a perception that if you have returned as a domestic worker, you are impure because you engaged in sexual activities, even if unwillingly.”  

Moving anecdotes and ad-hoc generalisations about migration can have grave consequences. Administrative data on legal migration exist, but provide an incomplete understanding of its nuances. They miss out on important facets like the actual terms of employment and recruitment costs, the reality of undocumented workers, social costs and the state of the returnees. 

They also do not account for opportunity costs and counterfactuals: are migrants really choosing to overlook equally good-earning prospects in Nepal as is increasingly believed in Nepal? Or are these views shaped by anecdotes that cannot be generalised? 

All this matters because curbing migration has public appeal in Nepal, even though research and evidence show that as countries develop and incomes grow, migration too increases to a certain point before falling at an income per capita of between PPP$5,000–6,000. Nepal is only at the early stages of development, and far from this threshold. 

Curbing unsafe and unrewarding migration should, however, be a policy concern and there are many initiatives in Nepal aimed at addressing those. A rigorous evaluation of these programs and a culture of evidence-based policymaking, however, has remained weak and deserves more attention.

When migrants are so desperate to travel abroad, asking them to slow down to consider all alternatives and to be better prepared, is often too challenging. However, Korea proves that aspirant migrants are willing to spend months learning a language and preparing for an overwhelmingly oversubscribed test if it promises a secure future.

The same cannot be said about training programs for other countries where investing in skills has not always guaranteed a better outcome. Even if uptake has improved for pre-departure training, how much better off are our migrants who have taken these classes? Without honest and rigorous evaluation, we will not know what works and what doesn’t. We then risk becoming complacent and replicating similar programs.

The Global Compact on Migration offers somewhat more clarity on how these safeguards can be made operational. For example, it seeks out-of-the-box thinking like the Global Skill Partnership model which will directly involve employers and/or governments in destination countries in trainings, both in the curriculum design as well as financing.

Such a skill partnership pilot initiative can also allow for a home-based track that would enable stayers to benefit from such programs. The onus to leverage the Compact for such practical purposes and innovations rests on us

At this stage, it is still unclear how the Marrakesh agreement will help address the lapses in Nepal’s migration governance. In such cases, we are yet to see if and how the Global Compact on Migration can complement our ongoing efforts so that it is not limited to rhetoric. 

(Originally published in the Nepali Times.)

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