Nepal's Accidental Refugees Depend on Humanitarian Assistance

by Trilok Kapur on  December 31, 2009 at 9:19 AM Lifestyle News
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The victim of a people trafficker who had promised to take him to Europe from his native Somalia, Youssuf Abdullahi Mohammud was just 16 when he arrived in Nepal in 2007.
 Nepal's Accidental Refugees Depend on Humanitarian Assistance
Nepal's Accidental Refugees Depend on Humanitarian Assistance

Mohammud, the eldest of five children whose father was killed by Somali militia, had paid the trafficker 4,000 dollars to take him to England, where he hoped to earn money to send home to his family.

Instead he was taken to one of the world's poorest countries, itself still reeling from a bloody 10-year civil war, where he has remained ever since along with dozens of other Somalis who came to Nepal in similar circumstances.

"When first I arrived, I thought I was in Europe - I had never seen white people before," Mohammud told AFP in a tiny cafe in downtown Kathmandu where many of the refugees spend their days.

"In Somalia we didn't have any Western television stations. I thought Nepali people must be Westerners. Then I found out where I was."

Mohammud is one of more than 80 Somalis living in Nepal, unable to return to their homeland or to obtain refugee status because the country is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention.

Diane Goodman, acting representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Nepal, says that as they cannot work in Nepal the Somalis depend on humanitarian assistance for food, shelter, education and health care.

"Although not a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention or its 1967 protocol relating to the status of refugees, Nepal has extended its generosity based on humanitarian consideration and hosted refugees for decades," she said.

"UNHCR provides a monthly financial assistance, medical care and primary education."

But the refugees struggle to live on their allowance of around 60 dollars a month, and many say that despite the desperate situation in their homeland, they would like to return to Somalia.

Asha Ali Maow, a 31-year-old Somali mother of three, arrived in Nepal in 2006 after a trafficker she had paid to take her to Europe abandoned her.

She had fled Somalia after militiamen came to her house and told her they had killed her husband, threatening to do the same to her.

Heavily pregnant with her second child, she flew to New Delhi where the trafficker left her, telling her to travel on to Nepal after giving birth and meet him there.

"I had the trafficker's number so when I arrived I tried to call him, but there was no answer," she said in the tiny one-room apartment where the family lives. "I was alone with my children and I was so scared."

Eventually, Maow managed to register with the UNHCR and began receiving monthly payments, allowing her to rent a small apartment.

Two years later, the husband she had been told was dead turned up at her door, having survived a brutal attack in Somalia and tracked her down to Nepal.

"It was a huge shock. I was laughing and crying at the same time, and I was really frightened. I thought he might be some kind of ghost," Maow said.

Despite the joy of their reunion last year, Maow says life is hard for the family, who sleep, eat and spend their days in one small, stifling room.

"It is not possible to live on the subsistence allowance we receive," she said.

"For water alone, we are having to pay 1,200 rupees (16 dollars), even though sometimes here there is no water."

It is not clear why so many refugees were brought to Nepal from Somalia, although some observers suggest that relatively lax immigration laws may be the reason.

The government says it is sympathetic to the plight of the Somalis, but does not have the resources to look after them and fears being viewed as a transit hub for people traffickers if they are resettled elsewhere.

"Urban refugees in Nepal are not the government's problem," Basanta Bhattarai, undersecretary at the home affairs ministry, told AFP.

"We have no obligation towards them, and we believe they will ultimately be resettled. But we have asked the UNHCR to ensure that their numbers do not increase."

The refugees say they want to leave, but are prevented from doing so partly because of a six-dollar daily fine for overstaying their visas.

Even children born to the refugees in Nepal are liable for the fine, meaning some families have accumulated thousands of dollars in fees that under current laws they would have to pay on leaving.

Many of the refugees, like Mohammud, are young men with families in Somalia who were relying on them for financial support.

They are educated and speak good English, and as they sip tea in the cafe in Kathmandu, their frustration is evident.

"In Somalia, at least I would be with relatives. Here I don't know what I am doing," said Osman Badri Tahir, 19, who came to Nepal in 2006 from Mogadishu after both his parents were killed.

"As a refugee, you usually have three options - repatriation, integration or resettlement elsewhere. We have none of those options."

Source: AFP

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