Visa fines: Pakistani refugees, others condemned to 'hilly prison' in Nepal

By AFP
Published: March 18, 2014
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Country's policy on refugees has left hundreds trapped, jobless and mired in debt. PHOTO: FILE

Country's policy on refugees has left hundreds trapped, jobless and mired in debt. PHOTO: FILE

KATHMANDU: Lahore resident Nawid Ahmad, 42,  fled to Nepal for safety and a new life but the country’s policy on refugees has left him among hundreds trapped, jobless and mired in debt. He has a fine of over $100,000 hanging over him and his family because they overstayed their visas. 

Member of the Ahmadi community, Ahmad decided to leave Pakistan 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 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.”

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.

Amir Hussain, a Rohingya Muslim, lost a dozen members of his family to sectarian violence in Myanmar last year.

He lives with his family in a tiny room in a house in Nepal 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.”

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 US, and is looking for a loan shark to pay the $19,000 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.

But the threat to life and limb has been replaced by a new, psychological torment that results from the long, idle days.

“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.

Friday prayers have just finished and he sits with a group of Ahmadis in the rented home they have turned into a mosque.

“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,” he said. His fine has climbed to $39,000.

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.

Back at the tea shop, Khalid, the Somali, admits he’s tired of talking about his problem.

“Sometimes I picture myself out of this situation. It will be such a happy day when the plane takes off,” he said. “But instead, we are here, with nowhere to go, and we feel totally alone.”

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Reader Comments (18)

  • Islooboy
    Mar 18, 2014 - 1:16PM

    When Muslims don’t find security in their own lands, they flee to other countries. And even then, they expect that their debts should be reduced, they should be granted wavers, etc. Stop this begging mentality and everything will be fine.

    Recommend

  • ajeet
    Mar 18, 2014 - 1:29PM

    Nepal should tighten security and expell these people so that the demographics of the Hindu country doesn’t change.Recommend

  • TribuneReader
    Mar 18, 2014 - 1:47PM

    @Islooboy

    Talk about being callous. That is the state of refugees everywhere, irrespective of religion. Most people can’t pay $100,0000. Every human being has the right to live in safety and you can’t blame them for wanting a better life. You obviously have very little regard or empathy for your fellow man. Recommend

  • Vasan
    Mar 18, 2014 - 2:07PM

    Muslims leaving a country achieved by Muslim violence for Muslims. And they feel safe in the only Hindu country, speaks a lot about Muslims, isn’t itRecommend

  • Hmm
    Mar 18, 2014 - 2:14PM

    I have sympathy for these people . But Muslims are known for their tactics of changing in demography . If these people change their religion to any non-Islamic one, Be it Buddhist or Hindu or Sikh or Christian , they should be allowed to stay in Nepal. After all , they are humans , but the religion of Islam has made them animals.Recommend

  • BRUISED INDIAN
    Mar 18, 2014 - 2:17PM

    @Islooboy: they were condemned in your land of the pure and now they’re confined atop a mountain prison with huge fines!! Go ahead read it again. It’s not the begging mentality, nitwit; it’s called being a refugee!!

    @Ajeet: you’re a fascist! Nepal ceased to be a Hindu kingdom after the monarch was forced to abdicate.

    The problems of this world lie in myopic vision brought about by bigotry and extreme narrow mindedness. The above two are prime example of the discomfiture faced by the human race. Please crawl under a rock or at the most kindly increase the size or your grey matter which currently is only an atom.Recommend

  • Dave31932
    Mar 18, 2014 - 2:33PM

    So many people are running away seeking asylum. What is wrong with the world?
    The UN talks and does nothing. People in suits and ties talk and do nothing.

    Recommend

  • Someone
    Mar 18, 2014 - 2:39PM

    Blekh. Too many narrow-minded right wing Hindutvas around.

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  • water bottle
    Mar 18, 2014 - 2:43PM

    @Vasan:

    Nepal is not a Hindu country anymore.

    It is a secular republic.

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  • Necromancer
    Mar 18, 2014 - 3:09PM

    WOW something interesting ET mentioned mosque for place of worship for Ahmadi, I have nothing against Ahmadi and I consider them to be more religious then their Sunni counterpart, I am just commending the ET for it’s bravery.

    Recommend

  • Bakhtiyar Ghazi Khan
    Mar 18, 2014 - 5:52PM

    You Indian extremists don’t realize that Nepal has an indigenous Muslim community as well. Reading your comment, I am glad that I live in Pakistan and my ancestors achieved partition from you.

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  • 3rdRockFromTheSun
    Mar 18, 2014 - 6:00PM

    Ah the irony of it all!

    Muslims seeking ‘refuge’ in an ‘infidel’ nation to escape perscution in their own ‘Muslim’ countries!

    Recommend

  • usman786
    Mar 18, 2014 - 6:11PM

    @Hmm: why ET allows such comments from hindus and christians. To counter such people, many of us like Taliban, although this means we are killed in the process too

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  • Priyank
    Mar 18, 2014 - 10:35PM

    People are calling Hindus narrow minded here. You are ignoring the fact that india’s east has become muslim dominant because of bangladeshi infiltration. We all know how fast muslims grow in numbers because of 10-15 babies per father. We cant let muslims overnumber others. We all know what happens to minorities in muslim countries.

    Recommend

  • Strategic Asset
    Mar 18, 2014 - 11:23PM

    One aspect that would worry Indians is that citizens of both India and Nepal have visa free travel to each other’s countries. This means that any one in Nepal would find it relatively easy to cross over to India as passport and visa is not required for Nepali citizens.

    Recommend

  • Mar 18, 2014 - 11:35PM

    Good for the reporter tracking down stories of those most vulnerable. Sad to see so much negativity in the responses here however. I don’t like to be judgmental but you are not following a spiritual path if you are so harsh to your fellow human beings.

    It sounds like the government bureaucrats have not been sufficiently creative and compassionate. In the USA we also find that it is politically popular to blame immigrants. Instead to taking that road, why not think of solutions?

    Because of the terrible persecutions they face, the Rohingya from Burma are certainly deserving of refugee status or at least “TPS” a Temporarily Protected Status.” While Nepal may not be able to afford all the benefits that some European countries like Norway extend to their applicants for asylum and refugee status, they deserve a more humane and less stressful situation. Nepal needs to sign on to international agreements and bring its standards up to a more professional level. As a largely Buddhist country, I would think they would wish to develop in this direction.

    Many Muslim nations do not treat the Rohingya refugees much better, though they allow the UN to register them as refugees and assist them. If you help them they will grow up and be productive and friendly members of your community! It is in everyone’s interest.

    For more information about the Rohingya please see the reports from Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights and the recent report by Fortify Rights.

    Recommend

  • Strategic Asset
    Mar 19, 2014 - 12:48AM

    @ademc: Nepal needs to sign on… As a largely Buddhist country, I would think they would wish to develop in this direction.

    Nepal, a Buddhist country? Nepal is 80% Hindu and only 12% Buddhist!

    While the Rohingya situation is deplorable, not sure why Nepal is being dragged into this. Also why is it that the other Muslims in Myanmar are not supporting the Rohingyas? Most importantly, why is it that countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, etc. do not absorb the refugees at least temporarily with long term refugee visas? They anyway have tons of migrants.

    It is much easier to pontificate than to actually do anything.

    Recommend

  • Thamserku
    Mar 27, 2014 - 2:33PM

    GREAT ARTICLE ! There are over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees residing in Nepal. They were forced out of their country by the Bhutanese government itself. At this point their population has increased even higher due to their off-springs. The percentage of people being rescued represents only a very tiny percentage of their total population. They live in refugee camps in utmost poverty. Yet they have never complained about their situation, neither they have tried to demonize Nepal or the Nepalese in order to get their point across. They have never complained about wasting their ‘Diamond’ or ‘Golden’ years in Nepal. They never said how prosperous or pathetic they were back in their country. They are just trying to survive the next day. So here is my advice for you, Have some patience because you might also get the golden ticket some day to fly overseas and harvest golden, platinum and diamonds altogether, And get rid of this pathetic country called Nepal and the Nepalese once and for all.
    Some of the fake commentators out here are trying to portray Nepal as religiously intolerant just to gain attention but you cannot change the truth with such comments.

    Recommend

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