KATHMANDU, NEPAL — Mohammad Aayas watches wearily as small groups of uniformed children chase each other around the tin-roofed houses and narrow lanes of their makeshift settlement.
The community’s sons and daughters are home from school too early, the 39-year-old explains, because they were not permitted to sit for exams at the same time as the other students.
“We could not pay their school fees,” Aayas says. Because he lacks a work permit and day labor opportunities are scarce due to the coronavirus pandemic, he struggles to scrape together 20,000 Nepalese rupees ($168) a month to support his family of eight; tuition and exams add up to 125,000 more rupees ($1,046) a year.
Aayas is among about a million displaced Rohingya, the Muslim minority group driven out of their villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine State since 2016, a humanitarian crisis described by United Nations investigators as containing “genocidal intent.” After fleeing violent persecution in the Buddhist-majority country, close to 350 Rohingya have made their way about 1,200 kilometers (740 miles) northwest to Nepal, seeking a safe haven for their children.
The school costs are the least of his worries. Their settlement of about 200 people must find somewhere else to live before their lease ends and the plot, smaller than the size of a football – or soccer – field, is subdivided by its owners.
Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal
Few Nepalese landowners are willing to rent to Rohingya, given the government’s refusal to grant them identity cards and work permits. This undocumented status also blocks Rohingya from owning property, even if they could raise enough money. The community’s efforts to appeal to Nepal’s government offices and humanitarian agencies have met with no success — and they aren’t welcome in other countries across the Asia-Pacific region, either.
“We have no place to go,” Aayas says. He stares blankly across the cramped, sloping property, as his wife sits inside their small, dark kitchen. “We are unable to come up with solutions. My mind doesn’t work anymore.”
Kathmandu’s other Rohingya neighborhood still has two years left on its lease, but space is limited — and that agreement may not be renewed in 2023, either. Both settlements rest on private land in the capital’s Budhanilkantha municipality. Its mayor, Uddhav Prasad Kharel, says Nepal’s government has already treated the migrants humanely by allowing them to remain peacefully.
“They came from a foreign country and settled here,” he says. “On humanitarian grounds, the government has let them stay.”
Graphic by Matt Haney, GPJ
Nepal is home to approximately 20,000 internationally displaced people, largely from Tibet and Bhutan, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Before the 1990s, they had access to refugee camps and identification documents, but the Nepalese government’s position has since shifted.
“We are not obligated to grant refugee status to anyone,” says Janak Raj Dahal, Ministry of Home Affairs spokesperson, noting that Nepal is not among the 145 signatories of the U.N. 1951 Refugee Convention, which protects refugees. “Our expectation is that they return to where they came from.”
The U.N. has described the Rohingya people as “the most persecuted minority in the world.” They’ve been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982.
Aayas recalls that he was a toddler the first time his family fled the country, back when it was known as Burma. On four occasions, they crossed the border into Bangladesh for a few weeks or months; the fifth time, in 2013, they resolved to go farther and never return.
“People were getting killed. The fighting did not stop,” Aayas says. “We knew there will be no peace, so we left.”
Most Rohingya have stayed in refugee camps in Bangladesh, but Aayas and his extended family wanted to get as far as possible from Myanmar and any potential government agreement to send them back.
“We came to Nepal to save our lives,” explains his wife’s cousin, Mohammad Idirice, 27.
Back home, Aayas had a grocery shop and vegetable farm. Idirice was a student. Now, like most Rohingya men in Nepal, they work illegally on construction sites. Both say they are often underpaid or not paid at all but have no choice but to keep trying to earn money for shelter, food, clothing, education and medicine for their families.
“There is no one to support us,” Idirice says, adding that he tries to limit himself to one meal a day. “I think we may have to sleep on the roads.”
“We can sleep on the streets, but where will the women and children sleep?” asks Rofique Aalam, 35. “It is better if the police arrest us and keep us in jail. At least we will have a roof over our head and food to eat.”
Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal
Aalam says they have tried sending letters to the ward office, the Ministry of Home Affairs and UNHCR. In a May 18 response, the UNHCR Nepal office wrote that it is “closely monitoring” the Rohingya situation and working “in close collaboration with the Government of Nepal to address challenges which refugees face in accessing protection and assistance.”
Mahamunishwor Acharya, president of the Human Rights Organisation of Nepal, says the Rohingya should be provided with a place to live, health facilities, education for their children and the ability to work.
“There is no government policy for refugees in Nepal,” he says. “But, on humanitarian grounds, the government should provide Rohingyas with refugee status. It is their human right to live their lives.”
With Aayas acting as interpreter, his wife, Noor Jahan, who speaks the Rohingya language, says they can only hope that Nepal’s government and UNHCR will find a way to help their community avoid homelessness. Otherwise, the 35-year-old says, she doesn’t know how they can survive another displacement.
“We have no money to build another house,” she says. “We will have to uproot our house and leave. I think it is better to die.”