By Summer Dunsmore
Four months after Nepal endured the deadliest quake in its history, Aneela Tasneem received another, tremulous, shock. Her family had been denied refugee status by the UNHCR in Kathmandu.
Back home in Pakistan, Aneela faced persecution her entire life as an Ahmadi Muslim. Following the passage of a 1974 constitutional amendment, Ahmadis have been barred from calling themselves Muslims or in any way “preaching or propagating” their faith in Pakistan. Considered heretics by the Sunni majority, Ahmadis face state-mandated fines, imprisonment, or even violence by other Pakistanis. Years of hate crimes and terrorism – including a bombing of two Ahmadi mosques in 2010, which claimed nearly a hundred lives – has forced many of them from their homeland, creating displacement hubs in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia.
After Aneela’s brother was attacked, her family fled to Nepal in 2013 with the hopes of gaining refugee status through the UNHCR. Aneela’s life is one of constant uncertainty, and the question of her status as a refugee – combined with the surprise and havoc caused by last year’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake – leaves her struggling to secure some semblance of a future for her family. After the denial of her case on August 20th, 2015, Aneela immediately organized a weeklong sit-in outside the UNHCR gate in Kathmandu.
“As a community, we believe if one person has a problem, the whole community is there to support. We are also victims of the earthquake, but right now we’re here to try and get a positive response for refugee status for my family,” says Aneela.
The scene there is humbling. Small children build mud castles to pass the time, while women donning black burqas sit closely together, murmuring lightly in the dazed noon heat.
The UNHCR in Kathmandu and the government of Nepal are the two institutions capable of protecting South Asian asylum seekers like Aneela, but the limitations of this relationship are obvious. Aneela must constantly grasp for basic assistance and – as a result – mobilize within a political system that is battling to secure its own legitimacy and recognition in South Asia’s post-colonial space. Since the formal abolishment of its monarchy, Nepal has been unable to solidify a constitution that includes the grievances and needs of its minority, indigenous classes who have long expressed a feeling of inequality compared to the powerful Brahman caste. For even the simplest forms of assistance, urban refugees dependent on the UNHCR must constantly compromise, unequivocally caught in the center of the broiling political climate of this country’s 26 million.
Like Aneela, Irfan Cheema is another refugee who has been at the forefront of his community’s fight to secure protection and assistance from the government and the UNHCR in Nepal, as well as local efforts to rebuild after the earthquake. He works as an English tutor and translator in Kathmandu, and is a poetic, imaginative speaker: “With no way, we have to find a way. In the darkness we are searching. You can say we ran from the fire into the sea, where the crocodiles are waiting for us.”
He reveals that following the April 25th earthquake, the Ahmadi community was without assistance for fifteen days. Like most Nepalis, their homes were severely damaged. “After fifteen days, the UNHCR supported us [sic] 3,000 rupees, but that was nothing in the situation of the earthquake. For two months afterwards, there was nothing to earn. It is too difficult to make daily wages. First of all, if a Nepali is getting 600 rupees, then we are only getting 300, because we don’t have the right to work, so we have to work at the half-wage. But if you work for 300 rupees for 30 days, it is just 9,000 rupees. What is 9,000 rupees when the rent of the house is 15,000?” he asks.
Urban refugees like the Ahmadis may spend hours, days, even weeks waiting to secure a five-minute meeting, to file paperwork for their medical expenses, or to obtain an allowance to cover the high-costs of their children’s primary education. The process is often slow, and in many cases, prayers go unanswered or unheard. The UNHCR was chartered in 1992 by the government of Nepal in order to help harbor Bhutanese refugees, and nearly 80% of those refugees have already been resettled. While the UNHCR has been slowly phasing out its major activities in Nepal, a modern need amongst urban refugees has steadily grown.
“Nepal doesn’t have a national framework to look at refugees. There are the urban refugees, about five hundred in number, who’ve come from various conflict-hit areas – Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Afghanistan – but they are not recognized as refugees by the government of Nepal. They are considered illegal migrants. When they come to Nepal, they approach UNHCR, and since the UNHCR mandate is to work in the protection of refugees, we recognize them as refugees after going through various assessments. But the government still considers them illegal migrants,” says Deepesh Shrestha, an External Relations Officer for the UNHCR in Kathmandu.
As of a civil meeting conducted on August 4th, 2015, the UNHCR will discontinue the aid it once provided to the majority of Ahmadis and other urban refugees, and will only be given to those with “special needs” – a margin so narrow, it does little to help most refugees living in Kathmandu. This austerity measure – perhaps a result of the bureaucratic nightmare and legislative standstill that has come to define the modern Nepali government – begs the urgent question of what should be done with urban refugees when they come to Nepal, while illustrating the specific ways these refugees have been denied a better quality of life from the institutions of global society specifically entrusted to help them.
Aashif Aaqash, an Ahmadi refugee who currently works as a tutor, must travel over forty kilometers a day on public buses to attend classes. He starts early in the morning and returns late at night. He has sought help from the UNHCR in obtaining a motorcycle permit, which would allow him more freedom to move around the city; but in this pursuit, along with many others, he has been denied. “The UNHCR has told us again and again to seek jobs. I asked them, if they would not help us in these small matters, how do they expect us to manage for ourselves?” says Aashif.
At eighteen years old, Aashif was forced from Pakistan following a string of threats against his and his family’s life. After returning home from a high school exchange program in Pennsylvania, an anti-American mob threw stones at his home and called him a traitor and infidel. When Aashif’s family contacted local police, they refused to help upon realizing that Aashif was an Ahmadi. The next month, Aashif’s friend was shot dead outside of his home. Aashif’s father was later shot at while riding this motorbike, the bullets puncturing the bike’s front wheel but sparing his father’s life. Aashif reports living in fear to attend classes or go to mosque for the next year; but the final straw came when three strangers attempted to kidnap him and his cousin, who both only narrowly escaped.
In late April 2013, Aashif and his family left Pakistan and traveled to Nepal with the intention of seeking asylum through the UNHCR. After one year of processing, they were finally granted refugee status. As of January 2016, his family’s case has picked up sponsorship from an Ahmadi charity organization titled Humanity First, and they will be relocated to Calgary, Canada.
In recounting his story and other injustices the Ahmadis have faced, Aashif’s frustration is evident: like many refugee youth, he’s been transplanted in a foreign country that provides little opportunity for his future. As older members of the community with their own families to worry about, Irfan and Aneela also question what will happen to the young Ahmadis, who have nowhere to claim as their own, no clear paths to education beyond fifteen years old, and no protection from local authorities. “If we die here, then what was the point of leaving Pakistan?” asks Aneela.
Following the weeklong sit-in outside the UNHCR gate, officials agreed to re-open Aneela’s case, citing errors they conducted during the initial interview process. Starting on August 28th, 2015, they re-interviewed Aneela, her brother, and other members of her family. However, on October 2nd, Aneela learned she’d been denied her second appeal for refugee status by the UNHCR. Her family is now stuck paying their nearly $60,000 tourist visa fine, or face imprisonment. “It’s injustice,” she says. “The government can stop this.”
Aneela’s case reveals the politics of refugee representation in Nepal – a slim distinction between “illegal migrant” and “refugee” that means Aneela and each member of her family have been charged a $5 visa fine for every day they seek refugee status and protection in Nepal. This policy is one of the strictest for asylum seekers in Asia, with Nepal using the fine as a deterrent against refugee migration. For those who do receive refugee status from the UNHCR, they must appeal to have the visa fines waived by the government. The wait for this averages an additional one and a half years to be processed, with the end result all-the-while uncertain.
Aneela and her community members confide that while the earthquake was devastating to their morale, it’s the bitter winter and the current fuel blockade between the Nepali and Indian border that is making life almost unbearable. To stay afloat, the Ahmadis rely on the strength and resilience of their local community: every Friday is reserved for prayer, while Saturdays at their community center in Kathmandu offer religious education, sports, and women-run workshops.
On such a Saturday, Irfan sits in the center’s office, the wall to his left flanked by portraits of the Ahmadi Supreme Leaders. He possesses no consternation at these immovable men, no remorse over having sacrificed home and health for his faith. Irfan only touches his glasses and says, “Two years ago, our children were like the flowers. They were smiling. Today, they don’t have hope; sometimes they will ask, ‘Father, what will happen to us? What is our future?’ And we don’t have answers.”