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Thursday, 20 March 2014

Desperate asylum seekers trapped in Nepal by high visa fines

In a limbo: Hussain and his family sitting in their rented house in Kathmandu. They can't leave the country without paying high visa fines. - AFP

In a limbo: Hussain and his family sitting in their rented house in Kathmandu. They can't leave the country without paying high visa fines. - AFP

KATHMANDU: 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 Burma (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 US$100,000 (RM327,255) 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 US$5 (RM16.3) 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 US$100,000 (RM327,255) 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 saying the traditional Islamic greeting of “As-Salaam-Alaikum”. Their mosque in Lahore was bombed in 2010, killing around 80 people.

Ahmad decided to leave in 2004 after he was shot four times – 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 said at his home in Kathmandu.

“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.”

Even more tragic is the case of the Somali community. Many came in 2007 when smugglers promised them a new life in the Italian city of “Naples”.

“When we arrived here, the smuggler said it was just a stop-over. In the morning, he had disappeared,” said “Khalid”, who fled Mogadishu after his father, brother and sister were all killed by a rival clan. He requested that his real name not be used.

He has been offered relocation to the United States, and is looking for a loan shark to pay the US$19,000 (RM62,178) in visa fines he owes for his family, a tactic employed by many refugees desperate to leave.

The loan could mean a long period of indentured servitude for Khalid, but he says: “I won’t hesitate. My children will get a better education and better life.”               

All are grateful for the peace and religious tolerance of Nepal.

Although there is occasional discrimination – particularly against dark-skinned Somalis – it is nothing compared to the brutal violence they faced at home. — AFP

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