Refugees, asylum seekers and displaced pOPULATIONS in Nepal / by Jess Linton

With Nepal not being a signatory for the UN 1951 Convention for the rights of refugees (that ensures their legal status and economic rights), the refugee’s experience within Nepal continues to be hugely challenging: most are trapped by the country’s harsh rules, live in a state of limbo, have no legal status and cannot own property, businesses, vehicles, or be employed lawfully (Lloyd & Kalmanowitz, 2014: 17).

Despite their not being a signatory for the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, Nepal offers asylum to a considerable number of refugees. UNHCR works with the Government, as well as with NGOs and other stakeholders, to protect, assist and find durable solutions for refugees and other people of concern.

 The main populations of concern to UNHCR (and that UNHCR are aware of) in Nepal are approximately 42,000 refugees and asylum-seekers. Some 25,000 refugees from Bhutan live in four camps and many other refugees are defined as ‘urban refugees’ and find themselves establishing their own communities outside of the usual support structures that a refugee camp might provide.

UNHCR have advised that Nepal, India and Sri Lanka have seen a growing number of people seeking asylum, and this trend is likely to continue in 2015. In the absence of national asylum legislation, UNHCR conducts registration and refugee status determination (RSD), and facilitates the resettlement of vulnerable groups. However, the processing of resettlement submissions for refugees from Bhutan in Nepal is becoming labour-intensive, a situation that is expected to increase as more complex cases are considered. UNHCR’s position in Nepal is to support refugees with their very basic needs and encourage their resettlement in countries which are able to support them. They are not able to offer financial support for refugees but do offer education grants to children and young people at primary and secondary school stage (there isn’t provision for children before primary school). Due to allocated resources within UNHCR and governmental priorities within Nepal and neighboring countries the reality of resettlement for refugees is also very tricky outside of the Gateway Protection Programme and agreed resettlement programs for Bhutanese and Tibetan refugees (see below).

For safeguarding reasons we can’t share specifics of the groups we are working with alongside UNHCR however we can summarize the refugee and displaced population(s) within Nepal. The largest urban refugee communities within Nepal are currently from: Pakistan, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq, Congo, Bangladesh. Alongside this, the Bhutanese and Tibetan communities have also been significant over the past two decades. Tibetan refugees who arrived pre-1990 were granted asylum, until a change in the government which no longer recognizes Tibetans as refugees. Therefore, whilst many transit to India, this change in policy generated a large number of undocumented and stateless refugees who decided to remain or did not make the journey to India (and these numbers are unknown). Refugees from Bhutan are hosted in four main camps in Nepal. Since 2007 the Nepal government agreed to permit third-country resettlement for Bhutanese refugees (Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2009 South and Central Asia- Volume III, 2012: 2565). A significant majority have now been resettled and this year, 2015, seems to mark a final phase of this programme of work for UNHCR Nepal.

With a strain on the resources of all involved it is important to be aware in our work of who is able to access of work. In this very initial phase of us working more closely with urban refugees in Nepal for Art Refuge UK, we have engaged with refugee families from Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Somalia and the Congo. These families not only found their own way to the sessions (in some instances taking up to 3 hours to reach us) but have also paid for their own travel. From our work in the UK we know that clients can be willing and used to travelling long distances to access services and support but it is rare that they can find the funds for travel. This means that we have to think carefully about who we aren’t working with – those who know about the work but can’t reach us as well as those who aren’t aware that there is some (basic but in its own way substantial) support out there for them.

There is clear need from UNHCR, local services and the refugee communities themselves for additional support. Art Refuge UK continues to focus on work with children and young people but their parents and families have a place within this work as a natural part of the life and existence of each of the children. Parents have also started to ask us what we can offer for them and how they might be able to get involved with the work.

If you would like to hear more about the work please keep an eye on this blog but also Flickr, which will be updated regularly!