AAMBHANJYANG, Nepal — When 17-year-old Shanti Maya Dong decided to quit school and go work as a maid in Kuwait, her parents tried to talk her out of it. But, eventually, their daughter wore them down.
A month after she left this Nepali village, Dong wrote back saying she was doing well. Twice that first year, she sent her parents about $360 — doubling the family’s annual income. And then the letters stopped.
Five years after her departure, Dong finally came home in 2010 — paralyzed and in a coma. Her desperate family learned from news reports that she had leaped from the fifth floor of a building and had been in a hospital for four years. But no one seemed to know why she jumped.
This agricultural country used to export herbs and tea leaves. Now it exports people. At least 2.2 million Nepalis — nearly 10 percent of the population — work abroad, according to the Nepal Institute of Development Studies. And that number doesn’t include Nepalis who leave to work illegally.
Nepal is one of the newest participants in a trend that has transformed South Asia: the mass migration of its low-skilled workers. About 36 million South Asians live outside the region of their birth, according to U.N. data.
The workers are a key source of income for poor countries. In Nepal, remittances account for nearly 26 percent of the gross domestic product, a higher percentage than in even El Salvador or Haiti.
But in recent years, Nepalis have become increasingly alarmed by the price paid by thousands of migrants. Some suffer depression as they leave tiny villages and travel alone to foreign cities where they don’t speak the language. Others face abuse, including long hours and beatings. Each year, hundreds come back in plywood coffins.
Still, the risks haven’t discouraged many young Nepalis from dreaming of going to work overseas. Among them is Dong’s youngest brother. Last fall, he began to think about leaving this village in central Nepal.
“There are no jobs here, and there is no other source of income for us,” Amit Kumar Dong, 20, said in an interview in November.
As he spoke on the porch of the family’s home, his comatose sister lay in a dark room upstairs, covered in a dingy blanket. Her mother fed her a thick fluid made from ground soybeans and chickpeas through a tube in her chest.
Nepal was an absolute monarchy until 1990, and most of its citizens were not permitted to travel abroad freely, except to neighboring India.
“After democracy was restored in 1990, Nepal made it fairly easy for everyone to obtain a passport,” said Ganesh Gurung, a sociologist who studies migration patterns.
“The [Persian] Gulf was just starting to grow at the same time, and there was a shortage of labor. So that made the region appealing,” Gurung said.
Meanwhile, the violent, decade-long Maoist insurgency that started in 1996 had severely affected Nepal’s economy. Unemployment is still a major problem. Government figures put it at 2.2 percent, but independent estimates are far higher — up to 46 percent, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.
For years, many Nepalis have scratched out a living on small farms. Increasingly, they began to see their neighbors’ sons returning from abroad with a television or a videocassette recorder. Even more significant, the migrant workers could send home enough money for a rural family to build a house with a tin roof instead of thatched straw, with cement walls instead of mud.
On a recent day in Kathmandu, about 2,000 people were lined up outside the Department of Foreign Employment, seeking to get work permits or renew existing documents. At the front of the line, young men and women were pressing against a dilapidated metal gate, screaming at the female police officer to let them through.
Many in the crowd said migrant labor had provided them with better lives.
“I work only eight hours a day and get 35 days of vacation,” said one man, Ek Prasad Gurung, who is employed as a security guard at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. “My work is safe, I make a good salary, and we have good facilities for food and shelter.”
Krishna Bahadur Malla, who works in construction in Qatar, said, “The company I work for is good, and I make about $520 a month” — 10 times the average earnings in Nepal.
But for some other workers, the quest for a better life ends in tragedy.
No one seems to know what happened to Shanti Maya Dong. Her parents have to walk 30 minutes to even reach an office where they can make an international phone call. But the hazards awaiting migrant workers are legion, according to U.N. and human rights groups.
They can be as ordinary as illness due to the intense heat in Persian Gulf countries, a shock to Nepalis accustomed to cooler temperatures.
But the risks also include exploitation. More than 50 Nepali women who reported mistreatment by their employers — including physical violence and sexual abuse — have been rescued by the Nepali Embassy in Riyadh in the past three months, according to Udaya Raj Pandey, Nepal’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia. In that period, the ambassador said in an interview, the embassy received about 100 complaints from male migrant workers saying that their employers did not pay their full salaries, made them work beyond their contract hours or didn’t return their passports so they could leave the country.
According to the Nepali government, at least 726 Nepali migrant workers died overseas last year, nearly 100 more than in the previous year. The government does not investigate what caused the deaths.
But human rights groups say migrant laborers often work 14- or 16-hour days, sometimes at sweltering construction sites where they carry heavy metal beams and concrete blocks. They often don’t get paid sick days. Amnesty International said in a report last year that 102 of the 174 Nepali workers who had died in Qatar in 2012 perished from “cardiac” conditions.
Nisha Varia, a senior researcher on migrant-worker issues at Human Rights Watch in New York, said that unlike countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia, Nepal doesn’t have an older generation of migrant workers who can inform younger ones about the expectations, problems and dangers of employment overseas. “Migrant workers from Nepal are likely to be the least informed when they travel overseas for work,” Varia said.
Dong’s family is now painfully aware of the risks. But after she returned home in 2010, her parents had to pay up to $20 a day for her treatment — a huge sum for a poor family with five children. There was only one solution: send two of Dong’s brothers to work overseas.
“We needed help paying for the costs from her medical expenses,” said Sunmaya Dong, the mother.
“In Nepal, there is no regulation and supervision of recruitment agencies that send migrant workers,” Varia said. “And in the gulf countries, Nepal has small embassies with a very small staff that is flooded with complaints and doesn’t have the resources to help their workers.”
Countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia have set up shelters for abused workers and sent social workers and labor attaches to work with their migrant population overseas. These countries have reached labor agreements with some nations that guarantee the migrant workers’ wages and rights. Nepal has no such accords.
Ramjilal Shrestha, director of the Nepali Department of Foreign Employment, said workers going abroad legally are provided with certain benefits, such as life insurance and an orientation program. “They learn about the language, culture and norms of the country, and what the challenges of living in a big city are like,” he said.
But those who migrate without a government permit are not eligible for those programs. Many Nepali women leave illegally, because of government restrictions on young females going to work in the Persian Gulf region.
That’s what Shanti Maya Dong did, slipping out through India to seek her future in Kuwait. Her family will never know whether she jumped from the building because she was depressed or abused — but something clearly went terribly wrong in Kuwait.
In January, after eight years in a coma, the young woman died in her bed.
With her eldest daughter gone, one son working in Saudi Arabia and the other son employed in Malaysia, Sunmaya Dong has decided the fate of her youngest son, Amit.
“My husband and I are both old now,” she said, followed by a long pause. “My elder son tells me his life was easier when he was pushing the ox and plowing the farm here.”
“I’m keeping the younger one here.”
Pradeep Bashyal contributed to this report, which was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.