MB Subba 

As a result of more Bhutanese citizens living abroad, the country has recorded a sharp increase in foreign remittance, which strengthens the foreign currency reserve and reduces the current account deficit.

However, this growing trend has become a concern for the country, in view of the small population and the declining fertility rate, which stands at 1.7, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

Over 15,904 Bhutanese were living abroad in 88 countries as of December 22, 2021, according to the State of the Nation report; 5,417 of them live in Australia.

About 300 Bhutanese left for Australia last month, according to records with ticketing firms. Officials, however, said concrete data was not available.

The government has said that a comprehensive study on the Bhutanese citizens going and living abroad was being carried out to chalk out “a way forward”.

Minister of Labour and Human Resources Karma Dorji said that most of the people are going abroad on a student visa and that they could contribute to “brain development” if they return to the country after their studies.

Lyonpo, however, added that it was a concern if people moved out for permanent residency (PR) or with the intention of living abroad for a long period of time.

“We don’t have concrete data on such issues,” he said, adding that a way forward would be based on the findings of the study.

Lyonpo Karma Dorji said that economic diversification and industry transformation were needed to retain people in the country.

Opposition Leader Dorji Wangdi said that it was a “big concern” for the country to lose citizens to developed countries at a time when the fertility rate has declined.

About 99 percent of those going abroad, he said, were among the economically active section of the population. “It will have implications on economic development and further decrease the fertility rate,” he said.

He said that the remittance would create a “false economy”. He explained that the GDP growth would not necessarily be fueled by the growth in the country.

At Nu 8.27 billion (B), remittance inflow in 2020 contributed about 4.82 percent to GDP, making it the highest remittance inflow so far. According to the Royal Monetary Authority, the amount was more than the remittance of the previous three years combined.

The trend, Dorji Wangdi said, could inflate real estate prices and widen the gap between rich and poor at home, as it has happened in countries like the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

“The government cannot stop people from going abroad but should create enabling conditions for employment through entrepreneurship rather than salaried jobs,” he said, adding that not enough was done to retain people.

Observers say that the trend of people going abroad indicates lack of economic development and that the government has failed to create opportunities within the country.

The GDP growth rate dropped to an all-time low of –10.08 percent in 2020 and, accordingly, the Gross National Income (GNI) was –7.23 percent. The overall unemployment rate increased to 5 percent in the same period.

For some youths, leaving the country is not an option.

A 28-year-old man who returned home in 2020 after working in the hotel industry in India said that he had to go back to India after his efforts to find a job in Bhutan were unsuccessful. He said that some employers in the country wanted to pay salaries that were not enough for living a decent life.

Some of the Bhutanese working abroad said that the pandemic had affected their incomes.

A graduate working in Kuwait said that she received reduced salaries as the Covid-19 pandemic hit the businesses in 2020. However, she said that she could save about Nu 50,000 per month after the company started giving her a full salary.

She said that she will start a business when she returns to the country.

The Royal Institute of Management (RIM) has started the Test of English as a Foreign Language Internet-Based Test (TOEFL IBT) as a substitute for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

However, sources said that it is difficult to book a seat at RIM, as the number of people aspiring to go abroad is large.

According to consultancy firms, most of their clients are in the age group of 23 years to 45 years and come from both the government and private sectors.

An official from one of the consultancy firms in Thimphu said that many people who are aspiring to go abroad but did not get seats at RIM are trying to travel to India for IELTS and the Pearson Test of English (PTE) tests.