Images of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing all manner of atrocities in northern Rakhine state in western Myanmar have flooded television screens and newspapers over the last few months. Over 500,000 Rohingya are believed to have fled in order to escape persecution by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military. Stories of rape, murder, and torture have now become commonplace. While the overwhelming majority of refugees are currently in Bangladesh, several hundred Rohingya have sought refuge in Nepal. Yet though they have escaped the fighting in Rakhine, life in Nepal is not without its problems for those who are often called the most repressed people in the world.
There are approximately 300 Rohingya living in hastily constructed shelters in Kathmandu, many of whom live in Kapan. Other reports state that some 600 are spread out over Nepal, but reports of their exact numbers are almost impossible to come by. While some refugees arrived in 2012, their numbers have significantly increased since August. Worryingly, of the 147 Rohingya registered with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, all arrived before August 25, the start date of the Tatmadaw’s most recent brutal military actions. This means none of the most recent arrivals have been registered as the refugees they clearly are.
All of the Rohingya in Nepal have passed through India, which has previously influenced Nepal’s domestic policy relating to its treatment of Tibetan and Bhutanese refugees. It is impossible to analyze Nepal’s policy relating to refugees without consideration of events south of the border.
In India, the Rohingya have been deemed a security threat, declared by politicians to be increasing the chances of terrorist activities inside India. The hostilities shown to many Rohingya in India have been explicit and many still face overt discrimination. Union Minister Kiren Rijiju called the Rohingya “illegal immigrants” and said India will try to deport 40,000 Rohingya currently living in India — including 14,000 who are registered as refugees with UNHCR. Hindutva rhetoric, supported by the ruling BJP and right-wing Hindu parties, is not helpful for generating domestic support for resettlement of the Rohingya. The anti-Muslim narrative of BJP ministers such Yogi Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are not exactly conducive to creating a welcoming climate for the Rohingya. It is therefore highly unlikely India will turn into a sanctuary for the Rohingya. With conditions difficult in India, it is expected that many of the 40,000 Rohingya living in India and currently facing threats of deportation — who are mainly in nearby West Bengal, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh — will seek refuge in Nepal.
Nepal is no stranger to dealing with refugees, with historic dealings with refugees from Tibet and, more recently, the Lhotsampa from Bhutan. These two groups have gained recognized refugee status in Nepal. Yet developments surrounding both Tibetans and Bhutanese have slowed and become protracted in recent years. With Nepal’s economy struggling and the country still slowly recovering from the 2015 Gorkha earthquakes, there appears to be little domestic demand to add a third group to this list.
It is not surprising therefore that a recent statement from Nepal’s Home Ministry said, “Nepal has increased surveillance at its border to stop more Rohingya from entering the country after the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar because we cannot bear any more crisis.”
There has been a mixed reaction in the Nepali press to this issue. Some articles, and a number of social media posts, portray the arrival of genuine refugees as part of a continued ‘Muslim expansion.’ Fears that aid provided by the government and NGOs may be diverted to assist the Rohingya are rife, although they have received little to no assistance to date. This argument is one that can quickly find support, leaving some political parties and civilians to dissipate anti- Rohingya sentiment. The argument that since Nepal has not provided for the basic needs of its own citizens, it is ill-equipped to deal with those of another nation, quickly gains traction.
Security concerns are another common guise to advocate for Rohingya not being allowed to seek refuge or enjoy protection of their basic human rights. Shyam Dahal writes in Lokantar:
Due to the open border, the flow of Rohingya Muslims will increase. If Nepal fails to identify them as refugees, they might create a rebel group which can create security threats to Nepal. If they are suppressed, terrorist organisations like Islamic State and al-Qaeda can enter Nepal to defend them.
Anti-Rohingya sentiment aside, the matter is complicated. There is unlikely to be outside assistance or repatriation to third party countries — with a lack of willing receptive countries, the previously successful resettlement of Bhutanese refugees in the United States and Tibetan refugees in India is unlikely to be repeated here. While Nepal has yet to recognize the Rohingya as refugees, as it is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention it has limited international obligations to fulfill related to the treatment of refugees and recognition will change little. As pointed out by Biswas Baral in a piece in Republica, should the issue of Rohingya registration make it to the Nepali high courts “it will be a brave judge who will rule in favor of Rohingya refugees.”
“Nor will humanitarian pleas hold much sway with Nepal government,” Baral continues. “In order to accept more refugees, the government will have to placate more than its domestic constituencies. Again, India would not want those it suspects of terror links in Nepal.” After all, as India has planned to evict the Rohingya under the guise of security threats, the government in Delhi will not be happy to see the same refugees settling in a country with which India shares an open border. Genuine humanitarian concern will often come a distant second to the security concerns of realpolitik.
However, the Rohingya do have some domestic support. There have been rallies for Rohingya held across Nepal, notably in Kathmandu and Nepalgunj. Further, as few have actually received aid, worries of assistance being diverted from Nepalis to Rohingya are ill-founded. Equally ill-founded are ideas that the refugees could not integrate properly into Nepali society. After all, since the 12th century, Muslims from Kashmir have resided in the Kathmandu Valley and assimilated. There is also a large minority of Muslims in the Terai who have been in Nepal for generations. Fears of sectarian violence or an inability to adapt to life in Nepal are ill-considered and do not have a factual basis.
While life in Nepal may be safer and preferable to that south of the border, it is still difficult. Work in Nepal can be scarce and without legal identification papers or registration the Rohingya are restricted to casual labor and committed to a life of always looking over their shoulder. Moreover they do not speak Nepali and, lacking a large community base in Nepal, they will struggle to compete for labor with many other more traditionally established migrant laborers, such as those from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar.
It is clear Nepal has no easy choices regarding the Rohingya. It will be hard to generate widespread domestic support and to convince many political parties of the need to provide assistance to these refugees, particularly when many Nepalese civilians still require state aid and assistance. For the Rohingya, caught in a bind in Bangladesh and forced out of India, there is no quick solution to their plight in Nepal.
Maximillian Morch is a human rights researcher based on the Thai/Burma border and previously in Nepal.