COVID-19 and Nepalese Migrant Workers: How Are They and Their Families Coping?

FROM: Pascal Fendrich, Pratibha Gyawali - 27. September 2020

The Safer Migration Project is a bilateral initiative of the Governments of Switzerland and Nepal, with technical assistance from Helvetas Nepal.

The COVID-19 pandemic has massively disrupted our lives in recent months. One group for whom this especially holds true is Nepalese migrant workers and their families. There has been much speculation in Nepal about the impact of the crisis on foreign employment, given the country’s heavy dependence on remittances. Here we report on a survey that took a statistically valid sample of migrant families to assess the impact of the crisis on them.

International Travel Restrictions

Cross-border migrants have been disproportionately affected by international measures to contain the spread of the virus. The country-wide lockdown that started in March 2020 caused the abrupt closure of Nepal’s borders and severed many migrants in Countries of Destination (CoD) from their families. Many of them have experienced difficult living and working conditions, and few of those wanting to return home have been able to do so. The economic downturn provoked by the pandemic may also lead to many job losses.  

A Survey of Migrant Households to Learn About Their Experiences

The crisis provoked by Covid-19 is still ongoing, and it is at this stage impossible to anticipate all its implications. It is, however, already possible to look back and analyse how the first months of the pandemic have impacted on Nepali migrant workers.

The Safer Migration project (SaMi) – a bilateral initiative of the Governments of Nepal and Switzerland, implemented with the technical support of Helvetas Nepal – decided to conduct an assessment amongst project beneficiaries.  In the midst of the crisis and the lockdown, this was a first attempt to hear from migrants’ households and contrast their experience with other available data and projections. It was conducted taking a large, statistically valid, sample of 2,535 migrant households, all of which are enrolled in SaMi’s financial literacy classes[i]. The survey confirmed the very immediate and concrete impact of the pandemic on migrants and their family members. While validating some expected general trends, it also shows a variety of situations and a very high level of uncertainty in the medium term. 

Most Migrants Have Continued to Work….

Despite speculation to the contrary, the survey showed that most migrant workers have continued to work throughout the crisis. Although all the main countries of destination have experienced lockdown, about 75% of the sample reported that the migrant has continued to work full or part-time. This pattern was the same for all countries with only slight variations between occupations. The survey also revealed that close to 20% of the migrants included in the survey did not receive their salary despite working.

…. but Are Unclear About Their Professional Future.

Interestingly, only a very limited number of migrants indicated that they had lost their job at the time of the survey. The picture, however, changes dramatically once respondents were asked about their future perspectives. The data collected shows that many migrants felt either unsecure or unclear about their job perspective (about 40%) or expressed a wish to return home (20%). This underlines how difficult it is to estimate the number of expected returnees in the coming months.

The Crisis Has Led to a Massive Drop of Remittances to Households… This May Be Temporary….

The economic situation of migrant families has deteriorated significantly during the period. Over 80% of migrant families reported a significant drop in income; for more than 60% this was explained by a decrease in remittances. Worse, over half of them report starting to use savings to survive – a clearly worrying situation that will become exacerbated with time. Respondents explained the drop as both a reduction (or absence) of the salary of the migrant relative abroad and the difficulty of accessing money transfer institutions because of mobility restrictions. This may indicate that part of the drop in remittances is temporary; this assumption was recently confirmed by official data on remittances, which showed transfers picking up again for the month of May and June[ii]. This trend will need to be verified in the coming months and surely depends on the number of migrants retaining their job.

Most Returnees Still See Their Professional Future Abroad

The survey also included a small sample of migrants who recently returned. Interestingly, and despite the great current uncertainty, most of them (about 66%) see their short-term future in foreign employment. Among the respondents wishing to stay in Nepal, about 70% plan to develop their own business.

These initial findings are currently being shared and discussed with partners, especially the Government of Nepal at all levels. We trust that they will contribute to determining ways to best address the needs of migrants – currently abroad or returnees – and their families.

Details of all the findings and an analysis of their implications can be found in the full-length report here.


Note on methodology:

Information regarding the migrants’ situation abroad was obtained “indirectly” through their immediate relatives in Nepal, acting as the primary respondent. This may be a limitation of the survey as some migrants abroad or respondents may “hide” certain aspects of their actual situation. In order to reduce the risk of approximate answers, families were briefed on the nature of the survey prior to agreeing to participate. Anonymity was guaranteed. In addition, SaMi could confirm the main findings and trends identified as concerns the situation of migrant workers abroad through an additional study conducted around the same period and that interacted directly with migrants “in service” abroad.

[ii] The overall decrease of remittances for the last fiscal year (July 2019-July 2020) was “only” of 0.5% - a lot lower than the initial double-digit projections of the World Bank and the Nepal Rastra Bank.


Senior Advisor Migration & Development
Pascal Fendrich
Pratibha Gyawali