Bleak outlook for Nepal’s urban refugees

Sit-in protests in Kathmandu by over 100 people aim to compel UNHCR to drop proposal to cut monthly allowances.

Nepal refugees
The refugees say cuts to UN aid will leave them with no way to support themselves [Deepak Adhikari/Al Jazeera]

Kathmandu, Nepal – Refugees have organised sit-in protests in the Nepali capital demanding that UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, which provides for them, revokes its decision to cut monthly allowances starting next year.

For the past three weeks, in a rare protest in Kathmandu, over 100 refugees have gathered under a large canopy in front of the entrance to a UNHCR office.

Rohingya women have huddled together near the closed entrance, nursing their babies, alongside Sri Lankans and Hazaras.

All shared similar stories of fleeing war, ethnic cleansing and political and religious persecution.

“We don’t have anywhere but the United Nations to turn to,” Hassan Hassan, a 23-year-old Rohingya who fled Myanmar after the 2012 riots, told Al Jazeera.

“This is the only door we have, whether it’s open or closed,” he said, gesturing towards the locked entrance.

“People in Syria and other countries are dying from bullets. Are we going to die from hunger? How can we feed our family if the UNHCR doesn’t support us?”

About 100 of the urban refugees registered in Nepal are Rohingya [Deepak Adhikhari/Al Jazeera]
About 100 of the urban refugees registered in Nepal are Rohingya [Deepak Adhikhari/Al Jazeera]

Hungry bellies were not their only concern. The protesters also faced a police crackdown.

Last Tuesday, state security forces beat up two Sri Lankan refugees while trying to clear the protesters, said Janaka Athukokarala, an ethnic Sinhala who fled his country during the war.

“Around 4pm that day, all UNHCR staff left the office,” he said. “After some time, a group of policemen came and tried to move us away from the entrance. We said: ‘We can’t go unless our demands are met.’

“They abused us and beat up two Sri Lankans. One of them had his glasses broken.”

The protesters are part of a growing number of so-called urban refugees in Nepal whose number, according to the UNHCR, has now reached 487.

Urban refugees seek asylum in urban areas and live in their own apartments, unlike other refugees who live in camps.

The biggest group are the 254 Ahmadiyyas, who follow a version of Islam banned in their home country, Pakistan.

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The Rohingya, the second largest group, fled religious persecution in Myanmar in the summer of 2012, and number around 100.

However, the Nepali government, which is not a signatory to the 1951 UN convention on refugees, does not recognise them as refugees.

Under its law, urban refugees are considered illegal immigrants subjected to a daily fine of $6. Refugees seeking to resettle in Western countries incur a large fine when trying to leave.

Stipend-reduction plan

Last December, the UNHCR decided to reduce the monthly stipend of $50 by 25 percent.

It said that while it would stop the allowance from next year, it would continue to provide it to refugees with special needs, including ailing, women, elderly and children.

Deepesh Das Shrestha, UNHCR spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that his office was forced to cut allowances due to large-scale displacements in other parts of the world. 

“With finite [and sometimes declining] resources, the UNHCR has had to rationalise what assistance it can provide to all refugees,” said Shrestha.

“The urban refugees living in Kathmandu – those who have been here many years and ones arriving recently – have been kept informed of these developments.”

The UNHCR was exploring alternative ways, including vocational training and income-generating activities, to support the refugees, Shrestha said.


Hassan, who is leading the protests in Kathmandu, said the powerful earthquakes earlier this year and border turmoil, which has caused a two-month long blockade, has led to overpricing and shortages of daily commodities. 

“Prices of daily commodities have increased three times. Everything is in short supply. How can we survive with so little money?” he said.


The protests in Kathmandu have coincided with deadly strife in the country’s southeastern plains.

Police killed at least three protesters over the weekend, angering the Madhesi people living along the border with India, who demand greater representation in the state institution and redrawing of federal boundaries.

So far, 50 people, including an Indian national and nine Nepali policemen, have been killed in clashes that began in August after the country’s major parties agreed to deliver Nepal’s first republican constitution.

Source: Al Jazeera