The refugee situation in Nepal can be betterThe country has been friendly to refugees, but there is still much room for improvement.
On the 20th of June, individuals and communities across Kathmandu and the world will observe World Refugee Day. Celebrated annually since 2001, the day encourages people to stand in solidarity with refugees, celebrating the positive contributions by refugees towards the development of communities, nations and global movements. On the television, in newspapers, at film festivals, art exhibitions and other public events, attendees will hear about the strength and resiliency of refugees. They’ll hear about famous refugees that have contributed amazing things to host communities. There will also be tales of hardship, of loss and of unimaginable pain and suffering. Finally, the tenacity of refugees, many achieving things that others could only dream of, will also take centre stage.
Unfortunately, we currently live in an age where the prevailing global political discourse revolves around securitisation of borders, walls, and interception. As a platform to deliver the counter-narrative to this discourse, the significance of World Refugee Day cannot be underestimated. The messages that are shared are truly important and should be dispersed far and wide. It is imperative that more people become aware of who is a refugee and why are they forced to flee their homelands. By shining a light on a part of society that is too often marginalised, we have an opportunity to foster hope for greater understanding, empathy and social cohesion.
As an individual that has lived voluntarily outside of my home country for the better part of the last decade, this day holds particular significance for me. Despite not being a refugee (and hopefully never having to be), I have made a number of strong connections with refugee communities across South East and South Asia. From the Syrian community in Thailand to the Sudanese community in India, and even the Rohingya population in Nepal, I have been fortunate to forge friendships and professional connections with refugees firsthand. This experience has allowed me to reflect upon a range of countries in the region and their treatment of refugees seeking asylum. In the case of Nepal, the prevailing phrase that continues to return to my mind is that ‘they can and must do better’.
To be fair, it must be acknowledged that Nepal does have a relatively strong track record when it comes to refugee protection. Despite not having signed nor ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, Nepal has played host to large numbers of Tibetan and Bhutanese refugees for decades. As a land-locked developing country, ranked as one of the world’s 28 poorest countries, such an ability to provide support and protection with no legal framework is nothing short of impressive. However, despite there being a loosely supportive environment, there are many challenges that still remain.
For urban refugees in and around Kathmandu, they are unable to work, unable to access full education for their children, and are only able to access a very limited amount of support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This places them in an extremely precarious position, with many individuals being forced to work in the informal economy or unable to send their children to school. Many others are also forced to live in sub-standard settlements throughout the valley.
Nepal, like many countries across the region, views refugees as a temporary problem, by which they are not legally obliged to provide a durable solution. Resettlement is considered to be the ideal and generally the only solution available to refugees and their families that are living in Nepal. It is left up to countries such as the USA, New Zealand, Australia or Canada to provide this solution.
Earlier this year I had the honour of meeting Sudanese refugee advocate Abdul Aziz Muhamat (Aziz) following his acceptance of the 2019 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in Geneva. Other famous refugees I’ve had the honour of meeting and getting to know in recent times include refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi, and the winner of Australia’s Young People’s Human Rights Medal Arash Borbar. Each of these individuals is extraordinary in their own right, raising their voice to protect the fundamental rights of their peers and fellow citizens.
It is important to note that all refugees need not be like Aziz, Hakeem or Arash. They can be anyone, from anywhere, with any number of stories and backgrounds. Refugees shouldn’t be expected to be famous, or win an international human rights medal, or achieve some other tremendous feat before we recognise them as ‘worthy’. We must begin to breakdown this negative framing and the discourse of ‘the other’ that has developed globally over so many years. We must discard our labelling and our negative stereotypes. Instead, we must remember and rebuild our joint humanity, our desire to help others in need, and our shared responsibility towards providing refugees with safety and security.
As a nation that has thrived and is famed for its ethnic and cultural diversity, Nepal has so much potential to further progress greater protections for refugees and asylum seekers in the region. If taken seriously, and together with civil society, the government can achieve a lot more than the current status quo. Whether it be through our families, neighbourhoods, communities, electorates or even political party offices, it is time for Nepal to address this issue head-on.
Evan Jones is the Programme Coordinator at the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), based in Bangkok, Thailand.