by Eric Randolph
KATHMANDU, March 18, 2014 (AFP) – Amir Hussain, a Rohingya Muslim, lost a dozen members of his family to sectarian violence in Myanmar last year. He fled to Nepal where the country’s policy on refugees has left him among hundreds trapped, jobless and mired in debt.
He lives with his family in a tiny room in a house where walls have collapsed, water drips through holes in the roof and an open concrete stairwell is a potential deathtrap for his two young children.
“If I go back to Myanmar, I will be killed,” he said. “When I came to Nepal, I felt safe but we found many problems.”
Hundreds of desperate refugees are trapped in Nepal, told they must pay fines as high as $100,000 before they can be resettled to the West. Barred from working, many have spent years waiting for the government to let them leave.
The biggest problem: that despite being offered new lives in the West by the UN’s refugee agency, most refugees — who number around 400 in the capital Kathmandu — have been trapped here for years by Nepal’s rules, which are decried by rights groups.
Nepal is neither a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, nor has it established a clear legal framework to deal with asylum-seekers or refugees.
The refugees are fined $5 for every day they overstay their 30-day tourist visa and the debt must be cleared before they leave. Many families have amassed tens of thousands of dollars in fines. The government does not waive the visa overstay fee even after the UNHCR has organised resettlement, which is usually to the United States or Canada.
And since the government does not recognise their refugee status, they must find the money while being barred from working, leaving them in a perpetual limbo.
Nawid Ahmad, 42, from Lahore in Pakistan, has a fine of over $100,000 hanging over him and his family. He is a member of the Ahmadi sect of Islam, which is officially heretical in Pakistan. Ahmadis can face three years in jail just for uttering the traditional Islamic greeting. Their mosque in Lahore was bombed in 2010, killing around 80 people.
Ahmad decided to leave in 2004 after he was shot in the leg, chest and hip in an unprovoked attack while out shopping.
“I miss everything. My heart and soul is in Pakistan, but we could not stay,” he told AFP at his home in Kathmandu.
He came with five younger brothers and they added wives and children. Most have already been granted asylum in the United States, but to leave, they must find the enormous visa fee which is an impossible task.
“This place is beautiful,” he added, gesturing towards the snow-capped Himalayas that lined the horizon. “But for us, it has become a hilly prison. We just wait and wait and wait.”
“I have lost my golden years to this place,” said Asif Muneer, 42, who ran a furniture business in Lahore before coming here in 2004. His fine has climbed to $39,000.
“Sometimes I lose my mind. I can’t sleep, can’t eat. Our life is like a pendulum, just swinging back and forth and never going anywhere.”
The refugees survive on a meagre allowance from the UNHCR, which has lobbied the government for years over the visa fee issue. The government says it has twice waived overstay fees for “some four dozen” urban refugees.
“However, we consider these people to be illegal immigrants, not refugees. Not waiving the visa fee is in line with our laws,” Shankar Prasad Koirala, head of the government’s co-ordination unit for refugee affairs, told AFP.
Nepal has waived the fees for thousands of Bhutanese refugees, all of ethnic Nepalese origin — their resettlement to the West has been one of UNHCR’s greatest success stories.