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Why thousands of people are leaving Nepal

BBC News - 7 December 2015 - When an earthquake hit Nepal in April, 9,000 people were killed and many more lost their homes. Thousands of men are now facing a difficult choice - should they stay to rebuild the country, or travel abroad where they can earn more money?

When an earthquake hit Nepal in April, 9,000 people were killed and many more lost their homes. Thousands of men are now facing a difficult choice - should they stay to rebuild the country, or travel abroad where they can earn more money?

Sabin has a dilemma. We are sitting outside the tea shop in his village, chickens pecking around our feet.

"I am supposed to go back to my job in Qatar, building World Cup football stadiums," says Sabin, a wiry looking 25-year-old. "But if I go I worry about how my family will manage through the winter cold - and if I stay, where will the money come from to build a new house?"

Sabin's home was destroyed in the earthquake which hit Nepal earlier this year. Months later, his wife and two-year-old son are still living in a temporary corrugated iron shelter.

At first glance, his village - in the hills about three hours' bus ride along a bumpy road from Kathmandu, the capital - has a pastoral, contented air about it.

A water buffalo lopes past, a bird - like a jockey - swaying on its back. An elderly man with a young child on his shoulders walks through the bright green stalks of the rice paddy. In the distance, a wind is whipping snow off the tops of the Himalayas, white brushstrokes on a cobalt blue sky.

"It's not only about the money," says Sabin, who is back home from his job in Qatar for the first time in two years. "So many of the men have gone away there's no-one left here now to repair the earthquake damage and build the houses. No-one to do the pipes, the electricity - they're all gone."

More than three-and-a-half million Nepalis - that's well over 10% of the population of this mountainous, underdeveloped country - have left to work abroad over the past 20 years.

Most of them are young men like Sabin. "Look around - do you see what you don't see?" he asks. "No young men - they're all in Malaysia, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai - everywhere but here."

Nepalis working abroad have a tough time of it, particularly those who leave the cool air of their mountain villages to labour in the heat of the Gulf states where summer temperatures can top 40C for days on end.

We are brought a curry, scooping up rice by hand. The chickens fight over scraps I clumsily drop on the floor.

"Many who go to the Gulf find they can't exist in the conditions there," says Sabin.

"Some die because it's too hot. But some die of cold - after hours working in the heat the labourers take a break. They often go into an air-conditioned place and then fall asleep. And they never wake up. We call it the killing room."

Remittances from workers overseas are vital for Nepal's economy. Most people live on less than $2 a day. The country's struggle to fight its way out of poverty has been difficult.

A 10-year civil war which ended in 2006 has been followed by an extended period of political instability.

The Madhesi people of southern Nepal claim a new constitution discriminates against them - they've mounted a blockade, stopping imports of fuel, medicines and other vital supplies from India. Many in Kathmandu accuse big-brother India of bullying tactics and orchestrating political unrest.

We climb the hill to what remains of Sabin's house. All that's there are two walls held in place by precarious-looking wooden buttresses. The rest is rubble.

"People are nervous" he says. "When they hear a loud sound the children often run out of their shelters. My mother says the gods and the demons deep down in the earth are still fighting."

Inside, the shelter is dark and musty. A large flat-screen TV, brought back as a gift from far-away Qatar, is propped, unconnected to a power supply, against a wall. Goats wander in and out.

Days later, I'm leaving Kathmandu's small airport. Under a "Migrant workers" sign there's a long queue of young men, slowly shuffling towards passport control on their way to jobs abroad.

It's easy to spot the new recruits - they're the ones in the smart clothes, looking more like teenagers going on holiday than labourers bound for building sites in the Gulf. On average, more than 1,500 leave every day.

I look for Sabin among them. Perhaps he's decided to stay after all. But he'll probably go - to sweat in the heat and continue constructing football stadiums - and dream of, sometime, rebuilding his house in the cool air of his mountain village back home.

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