Nepal: displacement crisis worsens in wake of royal coup

This summary outlines the main findings of the newly updated country profile on internal displacement in Nepal. The profile was prepared by the Global IDP Project of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which monitors and analyses internal displacement in over 50 countries worldwide. The full country profile is available from the Project's Database or upon request by e-mail (

Nearly six months after King Gyanendra assumed direct power and declared a state of emergency in February 2005, Nepal is faced with both a deep crisis of governance and a renewed spate of fighting and violence all across the country. The suspension of all civil liberties in the wake of the royal coup and the purely militaristic strategy chosen to deal with the Maoist insurgency have led to an intensification of the armed conflict and a sharp deterioration of an already dramatic human rights situation. Significant population displacements have taken place in the context of an increasingly polarised Nepalese society now on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. Since the conflict started in the mid-1990s, hundreds of thousands of people have been uprooted across the country. Landowners, teachers, and other government employees have been specifically targeted by the rebels and have fled their homes. Poorer sections of the population have also been affected and have fled forced recruitment into Maoist forces, retaliation by security forces or the more general effects of war. Most of them have flocked to the main urban centres, in particular to the capital, Kathmandu. Many more have swollen the migration flows to India.

No reliable figures exist on the current number of people internally displaced due to the conflict, but the most realistic estimates put it at between 100,000 and 200,000. Some estimates of the total number of displaced, including refugees in India, since the fighting began in 1996 go as high as two million, though these are impossible to verify. Virtually all of Nepal's 75 districts are affected by the fighting which has claimed close to 11,000 lives in the past nine years. The government has to a large extent ignored its obligation to protect internally displaced persons (IDPs), particularly those uprooted by its own security forces. The international community has been slow in acknowledging the seriousness of both the human rights and the displacement crisis, although there are now more positive signs that UN agencies and international NGOs, long present in Nepal providing development-oriented assistance, are ready to play a more active role in monitoring human rights abuses and to switch to humanitarian assistance for the most vulnerable among the displaced. The international community, and in particular the main suppliers of Nepal's military equipment, now have a responsibility to bring both parties back to the negotiating table. Only a breakthrough in the peace process and a full restoration of the democratic institutions will create conditions conducive to the return of the displaced.


An autocratic monarchic government has been in place in Nepal since 1962. Despite the re-instatement of a multi-party democracy in 1990 and a new constitution, which followed three decades of panchayat (non-party) system of government, the new political order continued to be dominated by the same elite who were not perceived as genuinely interested in improving the lives and livelihoods of the rural poor. It maintained a centralised system and largely failed to address the systemic inequality of Nepalese society, which politically and socially excludes an important proportion of the population on the basis of their ethnic and caste identity.

It was against this backdrop that in 1996 the "People's war" was launched by the Maoists with the aim of overthrowing the constitutional monarchy and establishing a new democratic socialist republic. The insurgency started in the districts of the mid-western region when Maoists began targeting the police, the main landowners, members of other political parties, teachers and local government officials. Using guerrilla tactics and virtually unchallenged by the government during the first five years, the Maoists gradually gained ground in other districts of the country.

It was not until the deployment of the army and the declaration of a state of emergency in late 2001 that the conflict escalated. In 2001, Prince Gyanendra was crowned as king after most of the royal family was killed during a shooting incident in the palace. A year later he suspended the elected Parliament, installed a prime minister of his choosing and indefinitely postponed elections. Since then, the King has effectively assumed full executive powers with the support of the army.

The January 2003 ceasefire signed by the government and the Maoists raised cautious hopes that the civil war might have come to an end after seven years. Although fighting subsided during the period of the truce, the situation on the ground reportedly changed little. In August 2003, the Maoists withdrew from the peace talks when the government refused to agree to the formation of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. The collapse of the ceasefire marked the resumption of fighting in most parts of the country and sent the country into a spiralling human rights crisis of unprecedented proportions.

On 1 February 2005, the king dismissed the government and declared a state of emergency giving him absolute power and effectively suspending all civil liberties. Media censorship was imposed and scores of political leaders, human rights activists and journalists were arrested. Under pressure from the international community to restore fundamental civil and political liberties, the king lifted the emergency rule on 29 April 2005. Many restrictions remained in place, however, including on freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and political activism (AI, 15 June 2005, p. 4).

In the wake of the coup, fighting and displacement has intensified significantly and human rights violations have been on the increase. In the absence of a parliament - dissolved in 2002 - or of a representative and elected government, civil society has currently no say in the conflict and Nepal is sliding dangerously towards an even more militarised and polarised society, with both sides paying lip service to the respect of human rights.

Many uprooted by conflict and human rights abuses

Tens of thousand of people have been displaced in Nepal due to the military activity of both the Maoist rebels and the government forces, and the more general effects of war. Particularly after November 2001, when security deteriorated markedly in rural areas, many people started fleeing to urban district centres, large cities like Kathmandu, Biratnagar and Nepalgunj, and across the border to India. All 75 districts of Nepal are now to varying degrees affected by the fighting, with the rebels more or less controlling the rural areas and the government's presence mainly restricted to district headquarters and urban centres.

In a desperate effort to regain some control of the rural areas, the government has since November 2003 encouraged the creation of "village defence committees" in various districts of the country (ICG, 17 February 2004). Often created by local landlords with the tacit support of the army, these militias are adding to the level of violence and constitute an inflammatory development in the conflict. Shortly after the royal takeover, these militias reportedly started to receive more active support from the army, including guns and training (Times Online, 8 June 2005). In February 2005, in Kapilvastu district an anti-Maoist rampage resulted in the burning of 600 houses, the slaughter of 30 "Maoists" and the displacement of between 20,000 and 30,000 people to the Indian border (Bell, Thomas, 12 March 2005; BBC, 14 March 2005; Kathmandu Post, 19 March 2005).

A large portion of those fleeing the conflict in its initial phase were from relatively well-off strata of the population: landlords, party workers, security personnel, teachers and Village Development Committee chairmen (INSEC, April 2004, p.112). Perceived as enemies of the "People's war" and symbols of the corrupt state, these people are specifically targeted by the Maoists. Since the February 2005 coup, the rebels appear to have stepped up their targeting of the families of army personnel, in particular in the mid-western region districts. Some 1,200 security forces family members have reportedly been forced to flee their homes in this region (Kathmandu Post, 15 May 2005).

Young people - both men and women - have also fled forced recruitment by the Maoist forces and in many areas constitute the bulk of the displaced (SAFHR, March 2005, p. 9). They are particularly vulnerable as they have little choice other than to join the Maoists - although sometimes only temporarily to attend political meetings - or leave their villages. Those who chose to remain are also likely to become targets of the security forces (Mercy Corps, October 2003, p.69). The escalation of the conflict in the past year has led the Maoists to intensify their recruitment campaign. With so many young adults having already fled their homes in rural areas in previous years, the insurgents reportedly force ever younger recruits to join them (CSM, 28 July 2005). This is forcing an increasing number of children to flee their villages. The UN estimates that between 10,000 and 15,000 children will flee their villages in 2005 (IRIN, 4 July 2005). An estimated 40,000 children have been displaced by the conflict since 1996 (Xinhua, 12 June 2005)

But the Maoists are not the only ones to blame. Indeed, civilians have also fled the actions of Nepalese government security forces in their operations against the Maoists. Many villagers have been displaced following food blockades, torture and killings by security forces. Civilians have been targeted on suspicion of supporting the Maoists and often tortured by the army and police (AI, 19 December 2002, pp.7-8). Between August 2003 and May 2005, the army claimed to have killed 4,000 "Maoists". This category reportedly included civilians suspected of having provided shelter, food or money to the rebels, whether under coercion or not (AI, 15 June 2005, p.4). Displacement caused by security forces tends to be less visible. Fear of being identified as rebel sympathisers and the absence of government assistance has discouraged many from registering as IDPs (Martinez, Esperanza, July 2002, pp.8-9). Moreover, the government's restrictions on independent reporting have also masked the extent of the problem (Watchlist, 26 January 2005, p. 9; APHRN, 14 January 2002).

People flee their villages for fear of being caught in the crossfire but also as a result of the indirect consequences of the fighting. The conflict has in many areas led to the breakdown of education, closure of businesses, weakening of local economies and interruption of public services. Food insecurity and lack of employment opportunities have traditionally forced able-bodied males of the mid-western region into seasonal migration to urban areas or to India. Insecurity and blockades have further reduced the availability of food and exacerbated a long-standing rural exodus trend. Many young people end up in India where wages are slightly higher than in Nepal and where they do not face security threats (SAFHR, March 2005, p. 36).

Estimates of displaced since 1996 as high as two million

In the absence of any registration of IDPs and of any systematic monitoring of population movements by national authorities or international organisations, it is difficult to provide any accurate estimates on the total number of people displaced since the conflict started in 1996, or for that matter on the number of people currently displaced. This problem is further compounded by the hidden nature of displacement in Nepal, where people forced from their homes either merge into social networks of friends and families or mingle with urban migrants en route to district centres or to the capital. Many also travel abroad, mainly to India, in search of safety and employment opportunities.

An IDP study conducted in early 2003 by a group of NGOs and UN agencies concluded that a reasonable working figure on the total number of people displaced, directly or indirectly, by the conflict was between 100,000 and 150,000 (GTZ et al., March 2003, p.8). Since then, the intensification of the conflict has thrown many more into displacement. INSEC, a Nepalese human rights NGO, recorded the displacement of some 50,000 people between 2002 and 2004 (INSEC, April 2005).

However, anecdotal evidence and other studies suggest the figures could be much higher. Between 2003 and 2004, estimates from various sources put the number of displaced at between 200,000 in urban areas only (OneWorld, 29 July 2003; Nepalnews, 18 September 2003) and 400,000 (CSWC, 1 February 2004, pp.8-9).

When considering the scope of displacement in Nepal, one has to keep in mind that all figures are highly speculative estimates which are impossible to verify. In addition, the problem is to accurately estimate how many have fled as a consequence of the conflict and how many are "regular" urban or economic migrants. Based on available data, it is estimated that at least 200,000 people are currently internally displaced directly or indirectly by the conflict.

This figure does not include those who have fled abroad, mainly to India, a traditional recipient of Nepal seasonal workforce. The open border between the two countries, the lack of monitoring and the mingling with more traditional economic migrants make it difficult to estimate the numbers of people who have crossed the border because of the conflict. Since 2001, the usual flow of migrants is, however, reported to have increased significantly with sometimes reports of tens of thousands crossing the border each month (ICG, 10 April 2003, p.2; WFP, personal communication, September 2003). In September 2004, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) suggested that between 300,000 and 400,000 rural families, or between 1.8 and 2.3 million people had been displaced by the conflict since 1996 (ADB, September 2004, p.2., and Appendix 3, p.78). It is widely acknowledged that the vast majority has left Nepal for India (IDD, 2 June 2005, p.1).

The lack of data on both displacement within Nepal and displacement to India make a strong case for further studies on this issue.

A humanitarian disaster looming

The socio-economic impact of nine years of conflict on one of the poorest countries in the world has been devastating. A mountainous topography, an inefficient agricultural economy and high population growth combine to make Nepal a chronically food insecure country (Lamade, Philip, August 2003). More than 40 per cent of the population, estimated at 23 million people, live below the poverty line. The incidence of poverty in the rural areas is almost double that in urban areas. The midwestern and farwestern regions, where the most intense fighting has taken place are also the poorest, with poverty rates approaching 75 per cent (ADB, September 2004, p.5).

In March 2005, the UN, international donors and aid agencies in Nepal publicly called on both parties to respect human rights and warned that the conflict, and in particular restrictions imposed on the movements of supplies and vehicles, was leaving many civilians without access to humanitarian and medical assistance. The statement concluded that the actions of both the security forces and the Maoists were "pushing Nepal towards the abyss of a humanitarian crisis" (BBC, 18 March 2005).

When fleeing their homes, the displaced either move to neighboring districts where they have friends or families, or look for safety and assistance near the district headquarters. Most arrive exhausted after having to travel days on a difficult terrain with little food and the few belongings they have managed to take with them. Although sometimes assisted by local organisations, most of the displaced, such as those living in Rajena camp in Nepalgunj near the Indian border, live in inadequate conditions, lacking water supply, shelter, access to health and livelihood opportunities (IRIN, 25 April 2005). In Dailekh district headquarters, 2,000 IDPs fleeing their homes in November 2004 were forced to live in poor hygienic conditions in a public building (Kathmandu Post, 30 November 2004). Villagers who had to flee the anti-Maoists mobs in Kapilvastu district and whose houses and properties had been burnt or looted have reportedly gathered in a makeshift camp and resorted to begging to survive (Kathmandu Post, 12 June 2005).

Following a mission to Nepal in April 2005, the UN interagency Internal Displacement Division reported that there was a significant need for enhanced basic services, including health and education, in particular in areas around urban centres where IDPs tend to settle among the urban poor (IDD, 2 June 2005, p.2).

Difficult living conditions for IDPs in urban areas

Living conditions are difficult for many IDPs in urban areas. The sudden population flood into the cities combined with the growing migration trends to urban areas in the last decade has led to a surge in the number of urban poor and placed a strain on the municipalities' capacity to deliver basic services such as water supplies, sanitation and waste management, as well as health and education (RUPP 2004). According to a study on urban poverty, displacement due to the conflict is increasing the concentration of poor in urban settlements, with many of the displaced turning into urban poor (Kathmandu Post, 20 April 2005).

Indeed, several studies have showed that the lack of income-generating activities was the major problem facing the displaced (INSEC, 2004, p. 117). Many IDPs are peasants and are unprepared to make a living in urban areas. When they find employment, these are generally poorly paid. This is partly because their own arrival has driven down wages in jobs that require low or minimal capital investment. These jobs are physically demanding and insecure (GTZ et al., March 2003, pp. 11-12). Along with poor economic migrants, displaced people work in factories, stone quarries or do small trading that generate low returns. In March 2005, a survey showed that 70 per cent of the displaced surveyed in urban areas did not earn enough to feed their family and that many had to survive on loans (SAFHR, March 2005, p. 15).

Displaced children often face particularly difficult conditions. Many young children have moved to urban or semi-urban areas, unhygienic conditions and hostile environments, where their families can ill-afford to send them to school. An estimated 5,000 children live on the streets of the main cities of the country, denied an education and exposed to a variety of threats, including sexual exploitation and forms of child labour (Watchlist, January 2005, p.30; OneWorld, 14 July 2003). A study of the impact of the conflict on children, released in June 2005 by the International Labour Organisation and Child Workers in Nepal Concern Center (CWIN), estimated that a total of 40,000 children had been displaced since 1996 (Xinhua, 12 June 2005). Many displaced children have witnessed violence and destruction, and are traumatised.

Many of the wealthier IDPs have been able to find shelter in cities and expect to return to their homes when conditions improve. A large majority of this IDP group sought refuge in district centres and main cities. Some have reportedly been able to buy land or build new houses (EC & RNN April 2003, p.79). Most of these well-off IDPs are not thought to experience major problems in their daily survival (Nepalnews, 6 May 2005).

Assistance: insufficient and discriminatory

Since the beginning of the conflict, the government has to a large extent ignored its obligation to protect and assist IDPs. Its response can be described as inadequate, discriminatory and largely insufficient.

Although the government established several compensation and resettlement funds for victims of the conflict, most dried up after a relatively short time. Also, government assistance has only been provided to people displaced by the Maoists. Authorities have not encouraged people displaced by government security forces to come forward with their problems, and people remained reluctant to register as displaced for fear of retaliation or being suspected of being rebel sympathisers (Martinez, Esperanza, July 2002, pp.8-9).

In 2003 and 2004, the government allocated 50 million rupees ($667,000) for the rehabilitation of IDPs or rather to "provide immediate compensation and relief to the victims" (Ministry of Finance, 16 July 2004, p.13). It was not clear if people displaced by government forces were intended to benefit from this fund.

In October 2004, under pressure from IDP associations, the government of Nepal made public a 15-point relief package for victims of the Maoist rebellion, which included monthly allowances for displaced people. The allowance was reportedly limited to IDPs above the age of 60 who had lost the family bread-winner and to children whose parents had been displaced by the Maoists (Government of Nepal, 13 August 2004). Again, those displaced by the security forces were excluded from the assistance scheme.

Since the royal takeover, the government has sent signals that it was willing to do more to help and assist its displaced population. Following the visit in April 2005 of the UN Secretary-General's Representative on the Human Rights of IDPs, Walter Kälin, who described the IDPs in Nepal as "largely overlooked and neglected", the government promised to develop a new IDP policy (UN, 22 April 2005). In May, the Minister of Finance publicly acknowledged the gravity of the displacement crisis and urged donors to help the government provide assistance to the IDPs, described as "the first and foremost victims of terrorism" (The Rising Nepal, 6 May 2005).

It remains to be seen if these promises will be fulfilled at a time when the government appears to be accountable to no one but itself and does not seem even willing to assist those it considers as the only legitimate IDPs - those forced from their homes by the Maoists. In April, the government pledged that it would respond quickly and efficiently to the needs of those displaced by the Maoists (Kathmandu Post, 6 April 2005). However, two months later no assistance had been forthcoming. Instead, the police brutally ended a peaceful demonstration of displaced people asking for food and shelter. Some 150 IDPs were detained on the charge of shouting anti-government slogans (IRIN, 7 June 2005).

International aid slowly shifting in response to needs of IDPs

In the obvious absence of an appropriate response from the government, one could have expected the large international aid community already present in Nepal to react swiftly to fill the assistance gap left by the national authorities. However, it is only recently that the seriousness of the IDP problem seems to have been acknowledged by the international community, which appears now willing to take a more proactive role and accept more responsibility for the displaced.

Many UN agencies and international NGOs have been in Nepal for numerous years providing development-oriented assistance, but almost none provide humanitarian relief or target their assistance at IDPs. Instead, most agencies have preferred to assist conflict-affected areas mainly through already existing development programmes. In order to avoid creating pull factors, likely to further depopulate rural areas, the agencies have been careful to avoid providing assistance directly to the displaced in their area of displacement. Instead, the strategy has been to maintain basic services in the communities of origin. However, since the intensification of the conflict in 2001, many aid programmes have been hampered or stopped by poor security conditions in rural areas. In 2004, many organisations had to suspend their activities due to an intensification of the fighting and restrictions imposed by both sides (Nepalnews, June 2004; OCHA/IDP Unit, June 2004, p.3). Faced with this reality and the deterioration of the conflict and human rights situation, more agencies seem now ready to shift their focus from development to humanitarian aid.

In April 2005, the UN's Internal Displacement Division (IDD) noted a change in the UN agencies attitude and greater willingness to address the humanitarian and protection needs of the displaced. In addition to the updating of contingency plans, taking into account the new situation, UN agencies have established a Crisis Management Group to improve inter-agency coordination (IDD, 2 June 2005, p.3). To strengthen the capacity of the UN to respond to the needs of the displaced, a Humanitarian Affairs Officer as well as an IDP Advisor have during the past year assisted the UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator, responsible at the field level for the strategic coordination of protection and assistance to IDPs. The IDD mission further encouraged all agencies to step up their activities towards meeting the needs of the displaced, pointing out that many agencies were still too development-focused and entrenched in a "business as usual" attitude. Donors were also strongly encouraged to support the shift from development to humanitarian action (IDD, 2 June 2005, pp.3-6).

The protection concerns of the displaced and the civilians in general have remained largely unaddressed so far. The government of Nepal accepted in April the setting up of a human rights monitoring operation by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The mission will monitor and report on human rights abuses as well as provide advisory services to the government (BBC, 11 April 2005). Although the government was clearly reluctant to see the UN monitor more closely its war against the Maoists and only accepted under pressure during the last session of the Commission on Human Rights, this is nevertheless a positive step towards increasing scrutiny of human rights abuses and making both the government and the insurgents accountable for their actions.

Clearly, more efforts are still needed by both the government and the aid community to effectively address the needs of the displaced.

The government, which has the primary responsibility to assist its displaced citizens, has to establish a non-discriminatory and comprehensive IDP policy, for which the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement can serve as a valuable guiding tool. Both people forced to flee their homes due to Maoist abuses as well as those who have fled actions by the security forces need to be recognized as Internally Displaced People and assisted to cope with their predicament.

The international community needs to agree on an IDP strategy and a clear action plan for meeting the protection and assistance needs of the displaced. Recently, a Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP) workshop took place in Nepal. The CAP, which will be launched in early September, will help agencies establish a common understanding of the humanitarian priorities and hopefully lead the way to a coordinated and improved assistance to IDPs.

The international community also has an important mediating role to play by bringing both parties back to the negotiating table. Only a breakthrough in the peace process and a restoration of the democratic process will create conditions conducive to the return of the displaced.

The full Country Profile includes all references to the sources and documents used.