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Refugee voices: Nepalese in India

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The conflict in Nepal is causing increasing numbers of migrants to cross into India in search of safety and economic opportunities. Since 1950, India and Nepal have shared an open border, so citizens of both countries can travel to the other without documentation and theoretically share the same legal rights, with the exception of voting rights, as citizens.

Nepalese have been going to India for economic reasons for generations, but now people's reasons for migration have altered. In the past three years, due to an intensification of the conflict and violence against civilians, as well as the ensuing collapse of economic and social structures, many Nepalese, including increasing numbers of women and children, are coming to India because they are no longer able to live in their villages because of threats to their livelihoods and their security. While the traditional migration to India and the open border have led some humanitarian agencies based in the region to question whether migrants are fleeing violence or are migrating for economic reasons, Refugees International believes, based on an assessment of conditions inside Nepal and interviews with around 30 Nepalese migrants in India, that the conflict is now so all-pervasive that it is impossible to separate purely economic migrants from those fleeing the conflict.

Raju first came to India in 1972. He has worked as a night watchman in New Delhi since then. His father and grandfather also worked as night watchmen, and his oldest son is pursuing the family trade as well. Until a few years ago, Raju would travel every two years to his village in a far western district in Nepal and stay there for six months before returning to Delhi. He returned to Nepal in 2003 and stayed there for a year with his family. Because of deteriorating conditions in his village, as well as his concern over his children's education and fears of conscription by Maoist rebels, he brought his entire family to India two months ago, with the exception of a 21 year old son who was already in India with his wife and child. Raju explained, "My children's education kept getting interrupted. The Maoists would take my wife and my children for indoctrination." These children are all under the age of 14.

Raju explained the constant harassment and intimidation by both the Maoists and the Nepalese security forces. "The Maoists would come into our house often," he said. "They only took food from us. Then the government security forces would come to our house and ask us if we were Maoist or if we had given food to the Maoists. They would verbally harass. They never hurt anyone in my family, but there were others in the village who were hurt." He also explained that in July 2004, he was caught in the crossfire between Maoists and government security forces. He was able to escape unharmed. He added that the government security forces killed 10 young villagers between 18 and 21 who were being indoctrinated by the Maoists in his son's middle school.

According to Raju, the conflict has had a devastating impact on the economy of his village. He estimates that 90 percent of his village has been displaced. Only the elderly, who are extremely vulnerable, are left behind. There are few people to do agricultural work. There is no government presence in the village, with the exception of some teachers. The government left four or five years ago, and the Maoists created their own government structures. The Maoists destroyed many of the former government buildings. There are no NGOs who have projects in his village, and there is no development work going on.

In India, life for Raju and his family is good. Raju and his son both have jobs, although his son complains of discrimination against Nepalese. He explained, "When we are on night watchman duty, and we go to the police with a robbery case, the police will not take it seriously because we are not Indian. Sometimes our employers do not pay us for our work or they add extra work to our normal duties and do not pay us for the extra work. Many people blame Nepalese for crimes." Nepalese migrants, like poor Indians, are subject to a variety of labor and human rights abuses.

Raju's two school-aged sons are able to attend school. The 1950 Friendship Treaty between India and Nepal allows Nepalese migrants free access to Indian government schools, provided they have the correct documentation. Raju has high hopes for his younger sons. "My father was a night watchman. My grandfather was a night watchman. Now my oldest son is a night watchman. Joining the 'family business' was a better choice for him than to join the Maoists. Now two of my sons are in school. I am praying that they will be able to move away from being a night watchman and have a better life."

Most importantly, Raju and his family feel safe in India.

Kavita Shukla and Michelle Brown just returned from a three-week assessment mission focusing on internal displacement in Nepal and the situation for Nepalese migrants in India.