Many Nepalis hope to reach Europe but their dreams end in Libya

|     Bhrikuti Rai & Chandan Kumar Mandal     |

SANTOSH Shrestha was supposed to return home to Nepal.

In January, Shrestha left Lamjung in the hopes of reaching Italy. An agent had promised to get him across the Mediterranean but was unable to take him beyond the bordeRsof Libya, where security conditions have been fragile for years, with fresh violence escalating since earlier this year. After spending nearly six months in the country, uncertain of ever reaching Italian shores, 27-year-old Shrestha reached out to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to help him return to Nepal.

But on July 3, just days before Shrestha was supposed to leave Libya, an airstrike hit a detention centre outside Tripoli, where he was living with dozens of other migrants. He was the only Nepali there and was among the 53 people killed by the air strike.

“Why was my son kept at the detention centre?” Som Prasad, Shrestha’s father, asked after learning of his son’s death. “Why didn’t they let him return like the others did?” school principal in Lamjung Som Prasad spoke to the Post three days after his son was killed in Libya.

Shrestha is the first Nepali to die in the ongoing violence in Libya. But he isn’t the only Nepali to be caught in the midst of renewed civil war, more than 6,000 kilometres away from home. In the last two years, dozens of Nepalis have ended up in the North African country, hoping to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach European shores. According to the Libyan office of IOM, since 2018, they have helped send back 48 Nepalis stranded in Libya.

But there are also hundreds of Nepalis who risk the perilous journey across the sea and apply for asylum in Europe. According to the European Asylum Support Office, these numbers have “remained broadly stable”, ranging between 580 and 830 applications per year since 2015, despite Nepalis having low recognition rates when it comes to being granted refugee status or given subsidiary protection after filing for asylum. In April 2019, the recognition rate was just six per cent. “The low recognition rate indicates that very few Nepali applicants are found to have valid grounds to be given international protection,” Spokesperson for the European Asylum Support Office Anis Cassar told the Post.

Despite that, last year alone 805 Nepalis applied for asylum in different European countries. A majority of these applications were filed in countries like Cyprus, Italy, Greece and France, which border the Mediterranean.

Dilip BK arrives in Kathmandu after being rescued from Libya with the help of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). – THE KATHMANDU POST

Shrestha had paid Rs1 million to a human trafficker to get to Libya, and when he last spoke to his parents several weeks before his death, he had asked for an additional Rs200,000 to get to Italy. If he had managed to get to European shores, or survived the air strike, he would have been part of a different kind of statistic.

When Sanjay Adhikari and Dilip BK from Madi, Chitwan left for Libya last year, they knew almost nothing about the North African country, including the ongoing violence there. They had never heard of Libya, let alone how far it is from Nepal.

Oil-rich Libya has been torn by violence and division since the uprising against—and subsequent fall of—its leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The country has remained a battleground between warring militias and political factions, which has displaced thousands of Libyans. Since April 2019, military commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libya National Army has been battling rival militias in a bid to control the capital of Tripoli from Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord, leading to intensified fighting in and around the capital.

In recent years, the number of people from the Middle East and South Asia crossing the Mediterranean from Libya into southern Europe has increased, following the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the continuing crisis in Afghanistan. To control the record number of people showing up at its borders, the European Union has been providing support to the Libyan Coast Guard, which intercepts migrants and asylum seekeRsat sea before taking them back to Libya for arbitrary detention.

But Adhikari and BK didn’t bother learning anything about Libya, because they were told that the money they would make would be a lot: Rs50,000 every month—about USD500. And more importantly, the cost of going there was relatively cheap—Rs400,000—compared to the cost of reaching other countries that would offer that kind of salary.

BK, who had returned from Qatar a year before he left for Libya, shared the same aspiration. Unemployed and living at home for more than six months, BK couldn’t resist the offer to leave Nepal again.

“A person in Libya told us that there were good jobs available, the country is peaceful and that we can make good money,” BK told the Post during an interview in Kathmandu earlier this week.

Like Adhikari, 28-year-old BK was convinced because the manpower agent had told them that his relatives and friends were also heading for Libya. More importantly, the investment was low, compared to the millions of rupees some Nepalis have been paying to reach the United States (US).

“We thought, why not grab the opportunity?” said BK.

Adhikari and BK paid Rs400,000 each for the Libyan job to associates of Ram Chandra Ghimire, who was masterminding the whole operation from Libya via phone and messenger services, according to the two men.

After making their payments, both Adhikari and BK flew to Dubai on a tourist visa. However, their plans of reaching Libya stalled in the Middle Eastern country. They were told to wait in Dubai for two months. Although they don’t know why they were asked to wait, they believe that the local agent was probably working on arrangements for their entry into Libya. After a two-month wait, they were finally taken to Libya via Tunisia, after paying another Rs100,000 to a local agent in Dubai.

Adhikari and BK lived out of a room for a week in Gharyan, a city in northwest Libya. They had been promised a job in a biscuit factory or a confectionery company, but when they were told what their jobs were actually going to be, all their hopes of working a comfortable job and making a good income evaporated. “We were given jobs at a construction company in Gharyan.

An employment agency sent us there,” said BK. “We had to carry construction materials, cut iron rods and do welding. The job was tougher than we had imagined.”

The two men weren’t told the name of the company and they couldn’t figure it out for themselves as there were no signs. All around them, they could hear gunshots, bombs going off, and rising smoke in the distance. They were not allowed to leave the construction site for seven months, which they spent with three other Nepalis. Adhikari and BK were paid around USD300 a month, even though the trafficking agent had promised them USD500. Food was provided by the company, but the employer would take his cut. They spent nearly USD100 a month on food and personal expenses.

After seven months of living in constant fear, Adhikari and BK decided to leave. Desperate to leave their captive-like conditions as their movement outside the workplace was restricted, they looked for support.

They came across a video on YouTube which explained how other Nepalis stranded in Libya had reached out to the United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping Mission in Tripoli and had been rescued.

Adhikari, BK and three other Nepalis were finally rescued in June and taken to the IOM camp in Tripoli. They lived there for a month before being repatriated back to Nepal in the first week of July, with six others.

“I often thought that I would never return to my family,” BK told the Post during a trip to the Anti Human Trafficking Bureau in Kathmandu last week. “It was only when the IOM team came to our rescue that I began to hope that I would live and return home safely.”

Among those who returned from Libya, only Adhikari and BK have approached the police to register a complaint about how they were deceived. But they aren’t very hopeful about the police’s intervention. They don’t have any evidence to show to the police since both men paid cash to agents in Nepal and in Dubai.

Back in Lamjung, Shrestha’s death has shattered his family. Som Prasad, the father, bitterly regrets being unable to convince his son to stay back.

“I told him not to leave, but he couldn’t resist the temptation to earn a lot of money,” said Som Prasad. “He wanted to pay off all our debts and take care of us.” – The Kathmandu Post