Living on the margins

One of the Rohingya camps in Kapan. Currently there are four such camps in Kathmandu, housing Rohingyas who started arriving in Nepal after 2012 in waves, after every fresh military crackdown. Pic: Lindsey A Hedges

The arrival of Rohingya refugees in Nepal earlier this year was just the latest wave of the Muslim group fleeing violent persecution in Burma – in fact hundreds of Rohingya families have fled to Nepal each time there is a fresh crackdown by the military.

The Rohingya have made harrowing and sometimes treacherous journeys across from Burma to Bangladesh and India and into Nepal, finding this country by far the most hospitable to them. The first wave of refugees six years ago sent word back to those fleeing the latest violence that Kathmandu was a safe bet.

In fact, Muslim refugees are not new to Nepal. After the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, Bihari Muslims were hunted down for collaborating with the Pakistanis and many thousands fled to India and Nepal. This country also has a reputation for not turning away refugees, having given sanctuary to Tibetans in the 1950s, more than 100,000 Bhutanese, and later even refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.

The Rohingya today have been called the most persecuted minority in the world, and started arriving in Kathmandu in 2012, while others have come as recently as six months ago. For most refugees like 15-year-old Sahat, Kathmandu is safe because “there are no checkpoints” and he can move freely.

Sahat has big dreams to go to university, but with no refugee status this may be difficult. Though they are safe and free from violence, some say their quality of life has deteriorated since their time began in Nepal.

The Rohingya established themselves in a flat in Kathmandu when they first arrived overland via Bangladesh and India, but the rent became too expensive. At the time the UNHCR was helping families with education and medical costs. However, since December 2016 UNHCR has dropped the funding, claiming it would rather see the community become ‘self-sufficient’.

That is something the Rohingya are striving for, but their lack of refugee status makes it difficult to get by in an overcrowded and under-resourced camp in Kapan (pictured, above). They try to survive day-to-day, working as carpenters and plumbers to be able to afford food, water and medicines. Because of the earthquake, there is a demand for construction workers.

Noor Jahan is a young mother who is happy her children are doing well in school, but says she has to sometimes send them hungry to school. Rohingya children being raised here in Nepal have integrated well into local schools, learning Nepali and helping parents communicate.

Saitara, a mother of two, is happy her husband has found work even though it is in reconstructing homes in Gorkha and he can come home only once a fortnight. His absence has added strain to an already burdensome life. The workers say they are paid less than Nepalis doing similar work.

The Nepal government strategy seems to be to let the Rohingyas be, leave them to their own devices, allow them to stay and work as long as they do not become too dependent on the state. Many have hopes of receiving official refugee status, at least for their children.

The community has arrived bearing the weight of physical and emotional trauma, they are stateless, fighting disease, and the pain of loss. Though the Rohingya of Nepal have a hard road ahead of them, they are all grateful for the community they have been able to build in Kapan, even though it is made up of tin sheds. By leaning on one another they have been able to survive in attempts to make a better life for their future generations.

Also read:

Lhotshampa, Rohingya

The South Asian cauldron​

Readers write:

Vishma de Keijzer Refugees are not new to Nepal, but when a government neglects its own people... hostility towards refugees seems logical. The earthquake of 2015 brought thousands of rupees. All for rebuilding the country. Not a bad idea to finally use that money for a good purpose...

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