KATHMANDU, OCTOBER 23
Abu Thakar, 24, was only 16 years old when he and his newly wedded wife managed to arrive in Kathmandu, 'a promised land', after completing a month long arduous journey.
They had travelled hundreds of kilometres on foot, hitch-hiked from strangers at times and trespassed multiple cross country borders to escape violent communal conflict at their hometown at Rakhine state, in Myanmar. Abu was told to reach Kathmandu and find a mosque here as it was their last resort to save their lives.
In October 2021, some officials from United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Nepal rescued Thakar and his wife from below Bishnumati river bridge in Kathmandu where they were hiding for four days after arriving in Kathmandu.
Thakar, one of the earliest refugees from Myanmar to have arrived in Nepal, gets all teary-eyed as he reminisces those difficult times. "The memory of escaping my country is like a blurred nightmare. I don't actually remember how I came into this alienated city, without knowing the language, without any idea about the culture here and without any money at such a young age."
"All I knew was that I had to reach Kathmandu, a promised safe place, to save my life as told by elders back in my village," Abu elaborated.
Following his arrival, more and more Rohingya Muslims from the northern part of Rakhine state illegally managed to enter Kathmandu with a greater influx after another episode of brutal violence broke in 2017.
At present, over 400 refugees with similar stories live inside two temporary settlements, amongst the local community, below a hillock at Kapan in the northern outskirt of the valley.
In the past decade, the refugees had undertaken an arduous journey of above 1,200 kilometres, crossed borders in Bangladesh, in India and finally entered Nepal.
Initially, they had found Kathmandu to be a safe haven as they would not face threat to their lives here and as survival was their primary purpose of life. However, increased population and indifference of government and international community and no proper jobs have started taking a toll over their daily lives.
With no where else to go, these Rohingya Muslims now stare at an uncertain future.
Half a dozen Rohingyas all below 30 years of age were gathered inside a small makeshift tent at the heart of their dark and damp settlement made from rusted corroborated zinc sheets when THT approached them. They had launched discussions to find a solution to yet another imminent problem about finding a new home for themselves.
A local landlord from whom they had rented the almost uninhabitable slop land at Rammandir in Kapan to create the settlement has asked them to clear the place by 2022.
Until 2016, UNHCR Kathmandu office used to support the Rohingyas with a monthly allowance of around Rs 15,000 to each family.
With this assistance, they had, in 2015, built the settlement out of rusted corroborated sheets and other waste products. They had also signed a contract of Rs 240,000 per year with the landlord. "But, the landlord has asked us to leave the place by 2022," Mohamad Ayub, 27, one of a leaders in the community said. "We have no place elsewhere to go now."
Initially, there were a total of 17 Rohingya families in the camp. In 2016, additional 16 families joined them. Unfortunately, the UNHCR stopped the financial support from the same year citing a lack of budget, as per the refugees.
Since then the refugees had been somehow managing to pay the rent of Rs 240,000 for the landlord at Rammandir from their hard-earned money. But, with recent notice from the landlord, the fear of a faceless future has started multiplying.
"We feel absolutely helpless as we do not know what to do next, as we may be forced to evacuate the land we are residing in," said refugee leader Mohammad Aalam, 27.
Aalam, who supports his family of five said, "There is no one to support and guide us anymore, and we do not know how our life will move forward."
This is not the first time that they have been faced with an issue of this nature. The community has frequently changed its settlement from place to place across the valley and beyond to find a reliable place to live in since 2012.
In 2018, another group was finally able to secure some private land in Lasuntar 500 meters downhill, worth a similar annual rent.
Meanwhile, refugees in the second camp also fear a similar threat of being evacuated.
Rafid Amin, 23, another refugee at the Lasuntar camp said, "We fear that the landlord will force us to leave this place as we often hear from locals that we have become a trouble for them."
The government that has been paying no heed to the humanitarian call from these Rohingyas has done precious little to support them. Nepal is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol nor it has any separate domestic laws regarding refugees.
With no direct international obligations, these Rohingyas who once lived a prosperous life back in their country are considered 'illegal immigrants' here in Nepal.
Furthermore, the government has shown no interest to adopt the convention citing its geo-location and has been refusing to adopt the refugee convention during the Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council citing its geo-location.
"Nepal has clarified its position at the Universal Periodic Review and that government's position is clear about legal structures," said Dhanraj Gyawali, secretary at the Law and Human Right Division of the government.
Nepal's Immigration Act prohibits any foreigners except for Indian nationals to enter the country and those entering without valid visas or paper documents will be deemed, illegal immigrants. It also does not allow any people to overstay inside the country exceeding the approved time by the authorities.
Without any proper recognition and help from donor agencies, the Rohingyas refugees are finding it hard to join their hands to mouth. "We used to have large farmlands and could feed our big family for a year just by working a few months. Now, I could hardly make money to feed my family with two basic meals," lamented Mohammad Aaiyas, 39, the sole breadwinner of a family of eight.
Only male members of the family get to work in the community and they often work as informal sector workers and daily wage earners. "Many days we don't have any work to do, and sometimes even if we get some work, a few fraud contractors won't pay us the promised sum once they learn that we are the refugees," said Mohammad Amin, 21, who resides at the Lasuntaar refugee camp in Kapan.
The Ministry of Home Affairs which has been looking after the security and humanitarian aspect of the refugees is more concerned about not letting the refugees get involved in criminal activities rather than providing humanitarian support. It is looking at the refugees more as a security threat than supporting them with a humanitarian obligation.
Fadindramani Pokharel, joint-secretary and the ministry's spokesperson said, "We have allowed them to live inside the country on humanitarian ground for now. But, we will not allow anyone to enter the country anymore." He further added, "Those who are residing here are also demanded to comply with the country's rules and regulations as cases of them being involved in illegal activities are rising."
In the first week of August, Nepal Police had arrested three foreigners, two of whom were Rohingya refugees certified with asylum seeker cards by the UNHCR.
Those arrested were charged for trafficking other Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh swindling above Rs 300,000 from one person.
The trafficking victim in the FIR said that the accused had lured him by stating the Rohingya refugees will be taken to the US by the end of 2022. It had taken around 10 days for the accused traffickers to bring the victim from Bangladesh based refugee camp into Kathmandu. Another arrested is a Bangladeshi national while yet another Bengali national is still at large.
"We take these incidents seriously as similar cases can go out of hands in future. We want to make sure that no one will get inside the country in a similar manner as it poses threat to domestic situation and national security as well," said Senior Superintendent of Police Durga Singh Chand, chief of Anti-human Trafficking Bureau.
This very incident has intimidated other Rohingyas who now fear leaving their settlements. "We can't go very far from our settlements since we don't have any identity here, we can't have SIM cards to communicate, ride a motorbike, find a decent job and to secure education for our children," Aalam said.
He further said, "We are merely surviving".
The government's harsh policies and no support from the international community have left them in the lurch as they don't have any place to go now.
Nirajan Thapaliya, Director of Amnesty International Nepal, said that the government should intervene and allow the refugees to secure their right to life and other fundamental rights.
Nepal has ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights among others.
Thapaliya elaborated that Nepal as signatories of such a declaration must protect the fundamental rights of those seeking refuge in the country. "Nepal must not opt for extremist approaches and force them to leave the country. Moreover, it has to ensure fundamental rights on humanitarian grounds, issue them refugee identity cards to let them live a dignified life."
A version of this article appears in the print on October 27, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.