Nepal Recovers Slowly, But US Says It’s Time to Leave

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Nepal Recovers Slowly, But US Says It’s Time to Leave

The Himalayan nation joins a growing list of countries losing Temporary Protective Status.

Nepal Recovers Slowly, But US Says It’s Time to Leave

Nepali men work on reconstruction of a site damaged by the 2015 earthquake at Basantapur Durbar square during the third anniversary of the earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, Wednesday, April 25, 2018.

Credit: AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha

A year from now, the studying and startups, the cooking, cleaning, and child care will end as thousands of Nepali citizens join the growing number of foreigners being shown America’s exit.

In April, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had determined disruptions from a cataclysmic 2015 earthquake had decreased and “should no longer be regarded as substantial.” Temporary Protected Status (TPS) granted to nearly 9,000 Nepali citizens, the news release said, will terminate on June 24, 2019.

The termination of TPS will directly affect over 300,000 people from Nepal and five other countries (Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Syria), with Yemen and Somalia TPS decisions coming in September.

Temporary Protective Status was established by Congress in 1990 based on the principle of non-refoulement or not expelling individuals to return to life-threatening conditions such as war, pandemic, or a natural disaster in their home country.

Nepal was designated eligible for TPS on June 24, 2015, two months after the country was devastated by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake centered less than 50 miles west of Kathmandu. The temblor and almost equally powerful aftershocks killed some 9,000 people and left more than 750,000 structures destroyed or badly damaged, and an already fragile economy in ruins.  

The Kathmandu Valley is one of South Asia’s most rapidly growing urban areas but more than 80 percent of Nepal’s 29 million people still live in rural, often remote villages that are difficult to access even under good conditions.

Today there are increasing signs of recovery in Kathmandu, but beyond the capital, recovery efforts have been delayed by political instability, government ineptitude, and an unofficial (but disruptive) blockade on the India-Nepal border that hampered the flow of relief supplies, fuel, and basic goods. Then, last summer, extreme monsoon flooding devastated Nepal’s southern Terai region, the breadbasket of the country.

Reporting for The Diplomat from rural Nepal, journalist Peter Gill characterized housing reconstruction efforts as “especially sluggish.” This spring, an American meteorologist visiting a rural district in eastern Nepal described villages that “looked like piles of rock” with people still living in “temporary shacks.”

A 2017 Asia Foundation report described “limited progress since the earthquakes in people moving from temporary shelters back into their homes.” As that time, over 80 percent of the residents in severely hit districts remained in temporary shelters.

More recently, the Himalayan Times described the recovery as “tepid” and “limping.”

Nepal’s ambassador to the United States, Dr. Arjun K. Karki, stated bluntly, “Over the past few years, the people of Nepal have worked hard to rebuild… despite our efforts, reconstruction and rehabilitation have been and remain a challenge.”

Sending Home Vital Funds

In a country where one-quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, the remittances sent home by Nepalis working under TPS in the United States have a huge impact.

The loss of those remittances would be extremely detrimental to Nepal’s recovery, as one working person can support multiple individuals or families in Nepal. That financial support has a stabilizing effect and can reduce the likelihood of negative coping mechanisms like smuggling and human trafficking.

Austin Lord, an anthropologist and Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, was in Nepal’s Langtang Valley during the 2015 earthquake. Following the disaster, he continues to be involved with recovery projects and research.

In an email, Lord said, “While some houses have been reconstructed since Nepal’s TPS status was extended in 2016, the vast majority have not been. Summary statistics provided by the National Reconstruction Authority show that approximately 75 percent of homes eligible for reconstruction have yet to be completed.” He added that hundreds of displaced people are living in temporary shelters and awaiting resettlement in some areas.

According to Lord, unlike Nepalis working in other countries, those with TPS in the United States work under relatively safe conditions, allowing them to provide steady support for recovering family members.

“I would argue that remittance is probably the most effective and efficient way to support locally-driven and earthquake-safe reconstruction… cutting off remittance flows would likely compromise reconstruction efforts in migrant households at a critical moment,” Lord said.

According to May 2018 Asian Development Bank (ADB) findings, remittances are the equivalent of nearly one-third (31.3 percent) of Nepal’s GDP, the top spot among 45 nations ranked by the ADB. Between 2007-2016, Nepal saw a whopping 262 percent growth in remittances, making it one of the most remittance-dependent countries in the world.

Fight for Your Rights

One of the leading groups supporting Nepali immigrants in the United States is Adhikaar, a women-led community center in Queens, New York.

Prarthana Gurung, Adhikaar’s campaigns and communications manager, said the organization helps Nepali immigrants safeguard worker and immigrant rights, and gain access to healthcare.

Adhikaar, which means “rights” in Nepali, also organizes TPS clinics where there are large Nepali communities such as in New York, Boston, Colorado, Texas, northern Virginia, the San Francisco Bay area, and elsewhere.

As part of the National TPS Alliance, Adhikaar has sought an 18-month extension of TPS as well as legislative reform as a long-term legal solution.

Gurung explained how TPS recipients are a diverse mix of people who have come to the United States during different periods for a range of reasons. Some came as students, others are young professionals, and others still are employed in domestic work, the service industry, or may have their own businesses. For many, though, Gurung said TPS is a lifeline that builds their confidence to invest in education, a home or business so they can improve their own lives while helping their families recover from disaster.

“This isn’t just about Nepal and this isn’t even just about TPS,” Gurung said, “This is about the larger immigrant community that really fuels this country’s economy and really has built this country in so many ways.” She argues this reflects the larger anti-immigrant agenda under the current U.S. administration. “This is something very much that you should care about because these are individuals who make it possible so you can do whatever it is you do.” Gurung said many of these immigrants are invisible but they feed Americans, drive Americans, groom Americans, care for American children, and do many jobs people often overlook.

Making the Case to Stay

In a March, Adhikaar partnered with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC) to publish an extensive report outlining the need to preserve TPS for Nepalis.

Lisa Parisio, CLINIC’s advocacy attorney for policy and outreach and the report’s lead author, said that three years after Nepal’s earthquakes, the country remains in the early stages of recovery.

She pointed to similar assessments from the World Bank and Nepal’s own National Reconstruction Authority, which conceded that two years after the disaster, “the work of rebuilding is just beginning.”

“After all of our research and looking at these experts including the government itself really see that situation in Nepal still clearly warranted an 18 month extension of Temporary Protective Status,” Parisio said.

Parisio explained that CLINIC wants to see Congress create a permanent legislative solution and fulfill its oversight function as the Trump administration executes what she called “highly irregular” decisions that run contrary to U.S. law.

“We clearly have a political agenda here by the [Trump] administration to end humanitarian forms of relief such as TPS,” Parisio said, noting the reversal of other immigration policies like Deferred Enforced Departure from previous administrations.

For those who argue Temporary Protective Status is meant to be just that — temporary — Parisio countered that everyone is entitled to the right to fight for survival and protect their families, even if that means crossing international borders.

Parisio pointed to the stories of TPS recipients, like a Nepali woman described in the CLINIC report using the alias “Neema.” Working as an attorney for an NGO in Nepal, Neema came to the United States to advance her degree. A chance encounter introduced Neema to Adhikaar and, after the 2015 earthquakes, fearing for her family, she was motivated to campaign for TPS status for Nepal. She continues to support her fellow Nepalis both in the U.S. and Nepal.

Another TPS recipient, called “Bibek” in the report, works as a chef in New York to support his children’s education in Nepal. He is quoted as saying, “I didn’t come to the U.S. with outlandish dreams of getting rich… I came here with a simple desire, one to create a stable and safe life for myself, my wife and two small children.”

Even as a cloud of uncertainty hangs over Bibek, he said he wants to continue to contribute to American society.

Parisio sees Bibek, Neema, and other TPS holders as making “huge contributions to our economy, to our society. TPS holders are not takers from our society, they’re givers,” Parisio said. “They’re fighting for their lives, they’re fighting for their families, they’re fighting for their children.”

Now, with just under one year until TPS ends, some 9,000 Nepalis must consider what to do about their lives in the United States. They must consider their families, homes, jobs, businesses, educations, bank accounts, and how to prepare for what lies ahead. For many, the impact of losing TPS may be more devastating than the earthquake that destroyed their homes.

Jon Letman is a Hawaii-based independent journalist covering politics, people, and the environment in the Asia-Pacific region. He has written for Al Jazeera, the Guardian, The Daily Beast, Foreign Policy in Focus, and others.