Rohingya refugees in Nepal battle for survival


Nestled in the wooded hills on the northern outskirts of Kathmandu are rows of zinc-roofed huts. A solar panel faces a weak autumn sun. The narrow path to the settlement is damp after a recent monsoon rain.

Cradling his two-year-old daughter, Sayeed Hussein, a Rohingya refugee, emerges from his hut that he shares with his wife and three other children.

The 33-year-old in a skull cap with piercing eyes and a long beard strikes a forlorn figure as his wife cooks lunch inside their rundown hut. At first, he is hesitant to speak, but after some explanation and a reference to a fellow refugee, the wiry man opens up.

A military crackdown in their home state of Rakhine in Myanmar has forced more than 480,000 of their compatriots to flee to neighboring Bangladesh in what the United Nations has called "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing".

The news of ethnic violence has trickled down to their makeshift shelter, fueling an anxiety that has gripped around 300 Rohingya refugees in exile in Nepal.

The Rohingya fled religious persecution in their home country of Myanmar in 2012. After spending years in India, many crossed the porous border with Nepal and arrived in Kathmandu, where the UNHCR granted them refugee status.

But it cut their monthly allowance two years ago, forcing them to quit their rented rooms because they could not afford the monthly rent of around 4,000 Nepali rupees ($38).

The refugees leased a plot of land from a local shopkeeper in the Kapan neighborhood four years ago. During monsoon season, they fear landslides and brace themselves for leaking roofs. They face harsh winter for months without any heating system.

They are also vulnerable to diseases in slum-like conditions that lack sanitation and clean drinking water.

Jaffar Alam, one of the first Rohingya refugees to have arrived in Nepal via India after violence erupted in 2012, said half of them do not have a refugee identity card issued by the UNHCR because their cases are still under consideration.

Nepal does not recognize Rohingya as refugees on the grounds that it is not a signatory to a 1951 United Nations convention on refugees. As a result, the Rohingya and other urban refugees, whose number in Nepal -- according to UNHCR -- is over 500, are at the mercy of the UN body, which cut the $40 monthly allowance in 2015 citing lack of funds.

The government has said it has tightened its border with India to stop Rohingya from using a porous border between India and Nepal to arrive in Kathmandu.

"We are helpless. We can't do anything on our own," Hussein said as a small crowd of fellow refugees gathered around him.

Hussein accused the Myanmar government of being bent on wiping out the entire Rohingya population from his country because of their religion.

"We don't have anywhere to go. No one cares about us," Hussein, who is recovering from a stomach operation from nine months ago, said.

Though they are grateful to the local community for hiring them for odd jobs, many say they have been cheated by contractors who pay lower wages than their local counterparts.

Hussein spoke about a case in which a contractor agreed to pay them 200,000 Nepali rupees to demolish a concrete building, but ultimately handed them only 50,000 Nepali rupees.

"That's because they know we are not allowed to work," he said.

Mohammad Idrees, 26, said he had applied for a refugee ID a year ago, but was yet to get one from the UNHCR.

He said there is little work for someone like him except to toil in Kathmandu's booming but informal construction sector.

Surrounded by his children at his hut, he flips through old photographs from his time in the neighborhood of Riyaz Din Fara in Maungdaw district of Myanmar.

A devout Muslim, he grew up in the family of a large landholders and learnt Urdu at an Islamic school. In his spare time, he played football.

At his flimsy hut on the fringes of this city of over 3 million people, he said he now worries about how to bring food to the table for his family of six, including his ailing 65-year-old mother.

"No one wants to leave his or her country. But we were forced into exile without any fault of ours. I don't even know what to say. I feel that the whole world has abandoned us," he said.

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