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Vulnerable youths, vulnerable nation (Part I)

Vulnerable youths, vulnerable nation (Part I)

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on August 1 cautioning and asking the Nepali youths not to join mercenaries of any country in violation of existing treaties and agreements. Nepali citizens have been a part of several foreign defense forces since the colonial era. Shifting geostrategic dynamics, global rivalry, rise in global migration and conscription through different methods and routes are a matter of concern. As per media reports, it is estimated that youths have been recruited in the Russian forces and other defense forces and may also be part of non-state actors or armed groups that contradict national priorities and policies. The shift in warfare besides other support also has implications for defense enrollment that comes with lucrative offers. The youth’s desire to join foreign forces emanates mainly from the Nepali state’s failure to provide ample jobs to its growing young population. But what happens to the national security and credibility of a relatively small country like Nepal when its youths choose to become part of a group or another by violating international norms and values in a deeply divided world?

This question calls for serious thinking on the government’s part.   

The presence of Nepali youths in foreign armed forces not only serves as an employment opportunity but also contributes to the economic well-being of Nepal through remittances. Additionally, these individuals gain exposure, training and experience that can benefit Nepal's own security forces and contribute to the nation's overall development.
However, it's worth noting that there have been discussions and debates about the repercussions of large-scale recruitment of Nepali youths in foreign armed forces with the state’s agreement. Some argue that it leads to brain drain, depriving the country of skilled human resources, while others highlight the economic benefits and the opportunity for youths to gain valuable training and career prospects.

The Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE) has allowed Nepali citizens to work in 110 countries, but our youths have been working in almost 172 countries. Still, our political elites do not appear ill at ease. Perhaps this does not qualify as an issue requiring serious attention.     

Rising labor out-migration is a grave issue, but more worrisome is the trend of the youths becoming part of foreign defense forces and law enforcement in the absence of necessary bilateral diplomatic arrangements.

Per statistics, around five lakh youths in Nepal seek job opportunities every year and more than 1700 Nepali citizens travel for work every day. The state encourages the youths to go abroad for jobs, laying bare its incompetence. 

As per the national census 2021, approximately 3.5m migrant workers (14 percent of the national population) are working abroad. Of them, 2.2m are aged 25-35 years and 18.72 percent of them are female. International migration, emerging as a means of livelihood for the poor, has also become a source of foreign currency ($8.2bn) revenue, which makes up 30 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. Top five remittance sources are Saudi Arabia (20.6 percent), Malaysia (20.5 percent), India (19.3 percent), Qatar (13.4 percent) and the US (8.3 percent). 

In the last 10 months of the fiscal 2022/23, the DoFE issued work permits to 660,255 Nepali citizens, of which 600,000 have already left the country. 

What’s more, UNESCO data show an increasing number of Nepali students leaving the country to study abroad. The number of foreign-bound students more than doubled from 44,225 in 2017 to 95,268 in 2022. 

A good number of Indian citizens have found jobs in Nepal and so have the Nepalis in India, due to bilateral arrangements, the open border, cultural factors and contemporary reality. Per the World Bank’s Bilateral Remittance Matrix of 2017, while the Nepalis working in India send home around Rs 102bn every year (this includes Rs 72.57bn from 35,000 serving and 180,000 Gurkha veterans), the Indians working in Nepal send home almost triple the amount—Rs 302 bn. For India, Nepal is one of the top 10 sources of remittance. 

The Indian Embassy in Kathmandu estimates that 8m Nepali citizens are living and working in India and puts the number of Indian workers in Nepal at 600,000, whereas independent estimates suggest that 1 to 3m Nepalis are working in India. High mobility of workers across the border, cross-border marriages and a significant Indian population with family linkages in Nepal have made the picture unclear. There’s no denying the fact that migrations affect national stability and security.  

Youths in foreign forces 

The trends of warfare are evolving with technology and modern equipment, including nuclear, but human resources still play a crucial role.

Men aged 17 to 40 years from 140 nations can join the French Foreign Legion to safeguard French interests and secure French domains. Though the government of Nepal has no records nor settled accords, it is estimated that 300-350 Nepalis are serving as French Legionnaires on a singular premise. The US Army reportedly has more than 1000 Nepalis. 

The Tripartite treaty signed in 1947 concerns the rights of the Gurkhas recruited in military services of India and the United Kingdom. More than 4000 Gurkhas are serving the British Crown with a few hundred selected every year and 32,000 Nepali soldiers are serving in 40 Indian Gurkha battalions. Apart from providing jobs to individuals, these forces also help augment Nepal’s foreign currency reserves.

The path of fire

The ‘Agnipath Scheme’ meant to reduce India’s defense expenditure seems to have failed to impress the government of Nepal. The scheme has implications for job opportunities, the economy as well as the rights mentioned in the Tripartite Agreement, given that salary of the serving and pensions of the retired soldiers is an important source of Indian currency for Nepal’s economy, which relies overwhelmingly on imports from India. The scheme will permit only a quarter of the 46,000 soldiers between the age of 17-23 years to continue in service after four years and bid others adieu with a golden handshake of INR 1.7m.

Absence of diplomatic steps prior to the scheme’s announcement has created problems that India and Nepal would have been better off without. Three points should be noted in this context: The new entry scheme was not part of the tripartite agreement; it adds to the unemployment data after four years and that the trained returnees would be vulnerable to non-state actors. 

There are many more Nepalis serving in Singapore, Brunei, UAE and other destinations. 

The Gurkha Contingent or the Singapore Police Force, with roughly 2000 Gurkha personnel, has a role in maintaining law and order. Formed on the basis of a deal between Singapore and the British Government on 9 April 1949, which entrusts the British government with the recruitment, the contingent was mobilized to quell communal riots between the Chinese and Malays of Singapore. After the 9/11 attacks, these soldiers have also been providing security to the President and Prime Minister and guarding vital installations. 

The sultanate of Brunei is another nation that accommodates more than 500 Gurkha in the Brunei Reserve Unit or the Royal Brunei Gurkha Reserve Unit, a special elite guard force previously led by the British Commanders to protect the Royal family, the citizens and major oil installations. Known as the “Praetorian Guard”, it works as a special forces unit directly under the command of the Sultan as well as alongside the Special Forces Regiment and Special Combat Squadron of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces. 

This article is Part I of the two-part series 

The author is a Strategic Analyst, Major General (Retd) of the Nepali Army, and is associated with Rangsit University, Thailand