Nepalis take backdoor to the American dreamEvery household in one remote district in western Nepal has at least one member in the US
This outlying district in the rugged mountains of central Nepal was where Maoist guerrillas launched their revolution in 1996 against the country’s feudal monarchy and ‘American imperialism’. Today, young men from almost every family in some villages here have smuggled themselves to America.
Since the end of the decade-long conflict in 2006, the first to go paid traffickers to take the land route across central America to seek asylum, saying they would be persecuted either by the guerrillas or the state if they stayed in Nepal. Hundreds of others have followed since then.
They call it “तल्लोबाटो” (the low road) here at Ward 10 of Putha Uttarganga Rural Municipality from where dozens of young men have left or are preparing to leave for the US after paying exorbitant amounts to human trafficking networks.
The preferred back-channel route to the southern border of the US currently is from Kathmandu airport to Dubai, Moscow, Bogota or Havana to La Paz, then on foot or by jeep through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.
Tak village in Rukum East was a Maoist stronghold during the insurgency. Some of the fading painted slogans on rock faces along the trail can still be deciphered: ‘Down with American Imperialism and Indian Hegemony’, or 'Free Comrade Gonzalo’ referring to Abimael Guzman of Peru’s Sendero Luminoso Maoist guerrillas who was captured in 1992.
Now, the descendants of those guerrillas, some of whom have also migrated to the US, want nothing more than to settle and work in America.
Not everyone makes it. Eight of those who left recently after paying traffickers Rs6 million each have been deported, and are back in Nepal. They are now trying to find other ways to get to America so they can repay the money they borrowed at up to 36% interest from local loan sharks to pay smugglers. Five of them have fled the village, unable to pay back the debt.
The 425 households in Tak traditionally reared sheep, gathering herbs to supplement the food they grew on steep terrace farms. At least one family member from half of the households is overseas, they first went to Bahrain, and now everyone wants to go to America.
“The real flood of people leaving for the US started six years ago,” recalls Ward 10 Chair Bharat Buda, whose own son spent Rs3.2 million to get to America in 2017. “Everyone in this village would go to America if they could afford to pay traffickers.”
Ram Buda worked in Malaysia and with his savings paid a people-smuggler to get him to America via Mexico. But he was deported after his asylum application was rejected. He has a loan of Rs6 million to pay back, and is hiding in Kathmandu.
Nandakala Gharti lives in a small stone house in Tak with her husband Dhanlal and four young children. Dhanlal used savings from working in the Gulf to pay smugglers Rs6 million to take him to the US via Mexico. He was caught by border patrol and was deported.
Back in Nepal he has no money to pay off loan sharks, and is raising more money to pay traffickers to take him now to Croatia.
Nandakala is distraught. Creditors are hounding the family. She points to her 10-year-old son, and says: “I am waiting for him to grow up and go abroad so he can pay off our debt.”
Gangaram Khadka of neighbouring Sisne Rural Municipality returned to Nepal to raise bees and chicken after being deported from the US. He came back a broken man with mental health issues. He is one of the few who has managed to pay off some of the interest on his loans.
After that, Gangaram hopes to go abroad once more. He explains: “No job in Nepal will be enough to pay back the capital I owe.”
In Musikot of Rukum West, almost every young man we spoke to from shopkeepers to school teachers say they are looking for ways to migrate to America.
Keshav KC, 33, is a contractor and earns a decent Rs60,000 a month. But he has watched his friends and relatives leave one by one, and paid a trafficker to take him too.
His journey took him and 11 other Nepalis to Dubai, Addis Ababa, Santiago in Chile, Sao Paolo, and then by land to Brazil, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico then finally the US where he was promptly detained. His refugee application was rejected.
Only after being deported back, and recalling the convoluted 6 month journey and the Rs5.4 million he had to borrow did he realise how futile the whole attempt was to enter the US illegally.
But things are no better in Nepal. He says: “There are no jobs here, and there is constant peer pressure comparing us with those who have made it in America.”
Tikaram Pun, 40, crossed 17 countries and spent Rs9.2 million to finally cross the Rio Grande only to be caught. He spent two years in immigration detention before being deported. He sold off the little land he had to pay off some of his loan, now he has nothing left to pay off the rest and his medical bills.
These are the stories of Nepalis who made it back alive. Many others have died in the process.
Rupak Bohara of Bafikot village was on a boat headed to Costa Rica with seven Nepalis and ten Bangladeshis when it capsized in the Caribbean Sea in 2018. Six of the seven Nepalis drowned.
Rupak’s wife Gita learned of her husband’s death six days later, and received his body a month later. Gita, 24, is struggling to raise her two children and pay off her husband’s Rs5 million debt. Undeterred, Rupak’s brothers and cousins are in touch with the same traffickers to take them to the US.
Angel Budhamagar was one of the other Nepalis who drowned on that boat. His father Rajendra received word that the trafficker who was paid to take the group to Costa Rica had overloaded the boat.
“My son lost his life all because they wanted to save $200 by hiring a smaller boat,” says Rajendra, who filed a complaint with the Anti-Human Trafficking Bureau.
The recruiter Top Bahadur GC fled to Ukraine after the boat disaster, but returned after Interpol placed him on a Red Corner Notice. He was acquitted in April after the Kathmandu District Court ruled that the prosecution’s case was not enough for a conviction.
Rajendra is now left with a debt of Rs3.2 million. “I can earn that money back eventually, but my son is gone forever,” he says.
As many as 178 Nepalis, 174 of them men, have been deported from the US since 2018, official records show. Of them, 49 are from Rukum while 37 are from Dang.
Jivan Shrestha of the Anti-Human Trafficking Bureau says that many who are duped by traffickers rarely file complaints to law enforcement agencies for fear of repercussions from traffickers and loan sharks.
While the push factor is lack of jobs and opportunities in Nepal, the pull factor are the stories of many of the Nepalis who have made it to the US and are doing well despite their undocumented status.
Shri Kami returned to Nepal after working in the Gulf for 13 years and now runs a butcher’s shop at Taksera in Rukum. His son got asylum in the US on his second attempt after spending nearly Rs10 million. Kami is proud that his son is in America, and earning enough to take care of his family.
For political scientist Bhaskar Gautam, these stories of desperate people being exploited by human traffickers is emblematic of the abject failure of Nepal’s political system to deliver on promises made during the revolution.
He adds: “The peace process did not acknowledge and could not make up for the cost of the conflict in jobs and livelihoods, thus exacerbating the problems.”
Teenagers on the run
In Rukum and Dang, many parents have handed over their teenage children to human traffickers to send them to the US. They have been told that children below 19 cannot be detained at the border and would be able to get jobs right away.
In April 2020, two 18-year-olds from Bafikot in Rukum and Ghorahi in Dang paid smugglers to take them to the US via New Delhi, Singapore, Colombo, and Malawi where they were stranded due to the Covid-19 travel ban.
The brokers set the teenagers up in a hotel in Blantyre, which detained them because they had run up a bill they could not pay. They were finally rescued by police 11 months later. By the time they returned to Nepal, their families had spent another Rs3.5 million.
The Anti-Human Trafficking Bureau rejected the family’s complaint saying the two had taken the journey of their own free will. Earlier this year, the two boys left for the US again, paying another Rs4 million each, and somehow made it this time.
A hotel owner in Rukumkot recently received news that his son finally made it to the Mexico-US border travelling through the UAE, Turkey, Algeria, Spain, Panama, Peru and Mexico. But his son is stuck there and thinks he needs to make it before he turns 20 to be eligible for refugee status.
“How could I have stopped my son from leaving when all his friends left?” says the young man’s father. “It is easier now to count sons of those who remain than those who have left.”
Prepared for Centre for Investigative Journalism Nepal. Additional reporting by Mahesh KC in East Rukum East and Durgalal KC in Dang.