Last year, the Nepalese government estimated that there were more than 200,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in the country but there is no accurate information on whether that number has reduced after peace was achieved five months ago.
The lack of an IDP registration system has made it difficult to determine who has actually returned home, aid groups say. Most of the displaced are scattered in major towns and cities or have migrated to India.
"But we can easily gauge that very few have returned because the Maoists still rule the villages and are selective about who can return to their homes safely," said Dilliram Dhakal from the Community Study and Welfare Centre (CSWC), a local NGO that has been advocating for the rights of the displaced.
Dhakal added that despite commitments pledged by Maoist leaders in the capital to ensure the safe return of displaced families, their local Maoist cadres in the villages have not been fully cooperative.
"There are issues of local Maoists not adhering to commitments made in the peace agreement," Paul Handley, humanitarian affairs officer with the UN's Office of the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Nepal, told IRIN in the capital, Kathmandu.
So far, only those IDPs who support or have close affiliation with the Communist Party of Nepal, Maoists (CPNM) have been able to return to their properties, said Dhakal. But a large number of other IDPs are still unable to retrieve their farms, livestock and houses that were seized by the Maoists, he added.
"What's the use of returning home when they have no property and land to live on for their livelihood?" asked rights activist Bhola Mahat from NGO Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), which has been actively helping the displaced return home.
Land issue is major problem for IDPs
It is no longer the threat of physical security but more of food and land security that has been impeding returns, said aid workers.
"I have nothing to eat or survive on. So how can I return home? Just to starve myself?" asked Ramesh Biswakarma in Kathmandu, where he is living in poverty after he fled from his remote village in the northwestern Jajarkot district.
A large group of displaced people from Jajarkot is still living at an IDP camp in the Rajhena area of Nepalgunj city, 600 km west of the capital. Camp residents are desperately seeking help from aid agencies to ensure their protection, safety and the return of their properties.
"Land continues to be a problem in rural areas with IDPs not being able to access their lands," Aidan Goldsmith, director of International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Nepal, told IRIN.
He said that major challenges for resolving the displaced persons issue were the return of their farmlands and generating livelihoods from whatever remains of their resources in their villages.
IRC has been working in the country for the past two years with a focus on IDPs, other conflict-resolution issues and health projects.
"There is a prime need for assisting the IDPs to restart their lives and help them to become functioning members of the community," said Goldsmith.
New IDP policy and legal assistance
A new policy for assisting the displaced, formulated and passed by the Nepalese parliament three weeks ago, is seen as key to resolving the displaced persons issue.
"It's a good policy and critical towards assisting the IDPs," Alexander Jones, Nepal's country director of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), said. In addition to OCHA, other key UN agencies and IRC, the NRC was also part of the task force to help the government develop the new IDP policy.
Jones said that according to the new policy, citizens forced to leave their homes will have the right to protection from the state. The policy also helps to clearly define the status of an IDP, which was not the case before.
NRC, which provides legal assistance to the displaced in more than 10 countries, also launched an Information Counseling and legal Assistance project a month ago in Nepal. Since then, many displaced families have been able to get advice on their legal rights and access to justice as well as guidance on legal documents which would give them access to their properties.
However, Jones said that many IDP families lost their land and property legal documents after they were forced to leave their homes. At present, many of them lack enough documentation to even get any compensation from the government for their lost properties.