By Sushma Joshi
It is sad that Nepal is unable, when it comes to its own internal borders, to recognize the vulnerability and concerns of other victims
The government of Nepal has no doubt signed every piece of legislation and international law there is in existence to fight trafficking. All the big political leaders have at one point or another pledged to help end trafficking. Activist networks and institutions receive millions of dollars in the name of anti-trafficking. And yet, when it comes to practice, we fail shamefully.
The case is illustrated starkly by 72 Somalis who have been stranded in Nepal by traffickers who promised to take them to Naples, Italy, and who brought them to Nepal instead. They have been in Nepal for five years. And yet the Nepali government insists they are “illegal immigrants”, and requires them to pay an exit visa for overstaying their visit. At $6 a day, some of these folks owe more than $6000-$7000 to the Nepali government. They are now stuck in limbo in no-man's land.
“We are not educated,” says Rooble Jama of Mogadishu.
“We don't have money,” says Hanad Aralle, from the same city, and also 27 years old.
Sounds familiar? With dozens of similar cases of Nepalis stranded in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Oman on similar grounds, you would think the Nepali government would have more empathy with people who may find themselves within the borders of another country through no fault or desire of their own. In Qatar, unknown numbers of Nepalis wait to leave, ticket and passport in hand, but are unable to do so because employers refuse to release them through an official document known as a “khruj.” Sadly, like the absurd requirement in Qatar, Nepal has held an exorbitant exit fee over the heads of Somalis, all of who fled conflict and a dangerous country, and won't let them go.
The Somalis, from the Parawani minority group, were oppressed by the Hawiye majority group. Rooble says his father was killed, his thriving shoe business destroyed, his shoe-shop seized, and he was forced to leave Mogadishu. “Nobody can live in Mogadishu now,” he says. “You are in danger all the time,” adds Mahad Abdullah Hasan, also 27. The group of 72 includes three disabled people, including two whose legs were shot by bullets. There are fifteen women, and thirty-five children.
“We have three choices. We can stay here, and integrate. We can go back home. Or we can resettle in a third country,” says Mahad. Clearly, the first two is not an option. But given the choice, they would rather go back home. “It's better to stay in Somalia. We can't work here, we are not educated, we are illegal. We'd rather die in Somalia than die here.” But even to return to Somalia, the group would have to pay an exorbitant exit fee. And for these refugees of conflict, that's simply not possible.
UNHCR recognizes them as refugees, and gives them a meager living allowance. The Rs. 4250 given to each man hardly covers basic needs. Children get an additional Rs. 1850. The Somalis live in groups of 5 or 6 to share expenses. Life in Nepal is not easy. They cannot work because the Nepali government views them as illegal, and they are afraid they might get imprisoned. And their color marks them out, unlike Pakistani or Burmese refugees who can pass as Nepali citizens. “We are not like them. They can work here, they look like Nepalis. We have a problem. When they see our color, they think we are smugglers. They won't rent to us. Kalo manchay hundaina, they say,” says Mahad.
UNHCR helped to get 52 visas from the American embassy for urban refugees. But only those who could pay the exit fee were allowed to leave by the Nepali authorities, so some people couldn't leave, even when they'd received an American refugee visa. Since this fiasco, UNHCR has suspended all negotiations for further resettlement with the embassy.
“The government says: Go back, we will discuss with UNHCR. UNHCR says nothing will happen till the government lifts the illegal immigrant tag. They point to each other. We are dying between them,” says Jama.
The frustration of being caught in this situation has finally brought the Somalis to their own public protest. Camped out outside UNHCR, the men are sleeping out under a roof of blue tarpaulin, and vow they won't stop till their case is resolved. On April 7, they plan to demonstrate outside the Home Ministry. If nothing happens in two weeks time, they will go on a hunger strike, including the women and children.
It's not as if the Home Ministry doesn't know about them. In 2008, they went and talked to the spokesperson of the Home Ministry, who assured them their case would be resolved. But nothing happened. Since then, the group has talked to other people, including the Madeshi Janaadhikar Forum. But five years have passed, and nothing has happened.
Surely the Nepali government understands that its obligations to end trafficking go both ways? Surely if it wants its own nationals to be released from inside borders in which they may unwittingly find themselves, it is required to do the same for other nationals?
The Somalis, it is clear, are not illegal immigrants. They have no desire to live in Nepal long-term, preferring to return to a homeland in which they could face death rather than remain here. In that case, surely it's the obligation of the Nepali state to waive the visa fees (these people didn't come here as tourists, after all) and give them permission to leave? If the Nepali government is afraid the country is going to get swamped with refugees -- which is hardly likely, looking at the state of our economy -- perhaps they could lift the tag “illegal immigrant” and instead apply “victim of trafficking” to this vulnerable group? Since UNHCR already recognizes them as refugees, this would mean the government effectively releases them from their current state of desperation and imprisonment, and they would be free to follow third country resettlement options.
“We are not getting any solutions. We don't know anything. We have no idea,” says Mahad in frustration. “We are in prison,” adds Rooble. These words echo the state of mind of the prisoners who must have found themselves in Bhairavnath Battalion, located only a block away.
It is sad that Nepal, which has made such an international uproar about trafficking of its own people stranded in far-off lands, is unable, when it comes to its own internal borders, to recognize the vulnerability and concerns of other victims. It is hypocritical of us as a nation-state to expect trafficking to end till we deal with the victims in our own land. The Nepali government must deal with this promptly if it is to retain its credibility when negotiating with other countries over its own stranded nationals.
Posted on: 2009-04-04 00:23:23
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