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The Star Online: Metro: South & East

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The Star Online: Metro: South & East

Desperate asylum seekers trapped in Nepal by high visa fines

Posted: 19 Mar 2014 09:00 AM PDT

KATHMANDU: Amir Hussain, a Rohingya Muslim, lost a dozen members of his family to sectarian violence in Myanmar last year. He fled to Nepal where the country's policy on refugees has left him among hundreds trapped, jobless and mired in debt.

He lives with his family in a tiny room in a house where walls have collapsed, water drips through holes in the roof and an open concrete stairwell is a potential deathtrap for his two young children.

"If I go back to Burma (Myanmar), I will be killed," he said. "When I came to Nepal, I felt safe but we found many problems."

Hundreds of desperate refugees are trapped in Nepal, told they must pay fines as high as US$100,000 (RM327,255) before they can be resettled to the West. Barred from working, many have spent years waiting for the government to let them leave.

The biggest problem: that despite being offered new lives in the West by the UN's refugee agency, most refugees – who number around 400 in the capital Kathmandu – have been trapped here for years by Nepal's rules, which are decried by rights groups.

Nepal is neither a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, nor has it established a clear legal framework to deal with asylum-seekers or refugees.

The refugees are fined US$5 (RM16.3) for every day they overstay their 30-day tourist visa and the debt must be cleared before they leave. Many families have amassed tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

The government does not waive the visa overstay fee even after the UNHCR has organised resettlement, which is usually to the United States or Canada.

And since the government does not recognise their refugee status, they must find the money while being barred from working, leaving them in a perpetual limbo.        

Nawid Ahmad, 42, from Lahore in Pakistan, has a fine of over US$100,000 (RM327,255) hanging over him and his family.

He is a member of the Ahmadi sect of Islam, which is officially heretical in Pakistan. Ahmadis can face three years in jail just for saying the traditional Islamic greeting of "As-Salaam-Alaikum". Their mosque in Lahore was bombed in 2010, killing around 80 people.

Ahmad decided to leave in 2004 after he was shot four times – in the leg, chest and hip – in an unprovoked attack while out shopping.

"I miss everything. My heart and soul is in Pakistan, but we could not stay," he said at his home in Kathmandu.

"This place is beautiful," he added, gesturing towards the snow-capped Himalayas that lined the horizon. "But for us, it has become a hilly prison. We just wait and wait and wait."

Even more tragic is the case of the Somali community. Many came in 2007 when smugglers promised them a new life in the Italian city of "Naples".

"When we arrived here, the smuggler said it was just a stop-over. In the morning, he had disappeared," said "Khalid", who fled Mogadishu after his father, brother and sister were all killed by a rival clan. He requested that his real name not be used.

He has been offered relocation to the United States, and is looking for a loan shark to pay the US$19,000 (RM62,178) in visa fines he owes for his family, a tactic employed by many refugees desperate to leave.

The loan could mean a long period of indentured servitude for Khalid, but he says: "I won't hesitate. My children will get a better education and better life."               

All are grateful for the peace and religious tolerance of Nepal.

Although there is occasional discrimination – particularly against dark-skinned Somalis – it is nothing compared to the brutal violence they faced at home. — AFP

Pre-school plan leads to big gains for disadvantaged children

Posted: 19 Mar 2014 09:00 AM PDT

THE six-year-old boy used to be hyperactive and aggressive and lagged behind his peers in English and maths. But he became more focused and did better in his studies after an educational therapist taught him to focus better.

"Now in Primary 1, my son's behaviour has improved, he is able to focus on his studies," said his security guard mother, who took on a new job with more stable hours to spend more time with him.

The mother and son are participants in a scheme that ropes in educational therapists, social workers and pre-school teachers to help disadvantaged children and their families, and has already seen results.

Called Circle of Care and piloted by welfare organisation Care Corner and philanthropic group the Lien Foundation, the scheme has led to big gains in learning for children after just one year.

Under the scheme, which started in February last year, 159 pre-school children from two childcare centres at Leng Kee and Admiralty received a high-quality pre-school education, which included music and movement classes, field trips and literacy and numeracy programmes.

The Leng Kee centre charges S$560 (RM1,450) a month for full-day childcare, but needy families pay just S$3 (RM7) to S$6 (RM16) a month.

Children who need help in areas from learning to health and finance were identified early by social workers.

They and their families were given appropriate help, often at the centre itself.

For instance, the six-year-old boy was taught how to focus better and given help to develop his reading and maths skills; his mother learnt effective parenting techniques, including how to coach her son.

The scheme has had encouraging results. Not only did the children go to pre-school more often, but they also showed big jumps in reading and numeracy skills.

Children at the Leng Kee centre used to attend class only five days a month on average. Now they attend an average 12 days a month.

Twenty-four children at the two centres, who could read only a few words such as "I" or "me", also received educational therapy.

Among other things, they were taught reading and told stories by students from Wheelock College, a pre-school teacher training institute.

After more than six months, the children could recognise the sounds that accompany the letters of the alphabet, noted early childhood expert Khoo Kim Choo, who designed the curriculum and trained the teachers.

The centres also ran talks and workshops for parents and invited them on field trips. This has made the parents more involved in their children's education.

For a start, they are taking their children to the centres on time, at 9am. Previously some would arrive as late as 4pm.

And before the programme started at Leng Kee, only one parent turned up to meet her child's teacher.

Last year, 25 parents attended the meeting.

Lee Poh Wah, chief executive of the Lien Foundation which has pledged S$1.8mil (RM4.6mil) to run the programme for four years, said the results so far have shown that the pilot scheme, which brings together various kinds of help for children, can improve outcomes for pre-schoolers from disadvantaged backgrounds. — The Straits Times / Asia News Network

Indo-Aussie ties still at a low

Posted: 19 Mar 2014 09:00 AM PDT

JAKARTA: Australia's defence minister conceded during a visit to Jakarta there was still no "breakthrough" in improving relations with Indonesia which have been damaged by a row over spying.

Ties between Jakarta and Canberra have sunk to their lowest point for years following allegations that Australian spies tried to tap the phones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his inner circle.

The spying claims, which emerged in news reports in November, prompted Indonesia to recall its ambassador and halt cooperation on people-smuggling and with Australia's military.

During a visit to Jakarta for an annual defence conference yesterday, Defence Minister David Johnston insisted the relationship remained "very close, very friendly".

"The senior leadership on both sides has a very close working relationship," said John­ston.

Johnston was due to hold talks with his Indonesian counterpart Purnomo Yusgian­toro later in the day.

However he conceded that the relationship with Jakarta was at a "go-slow", adding: "I don't think we are in a breakthrough situation."

Indonesia has demanded that Australia agree on a code of conduct before ties can return to normal, and officials are in the process of trying to hammer one out.

Jakarta has also been angered by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's policies on stemming the flow of asylum-seekers.

Canberra has established a military-led operation to stop the boatpeople arriving, a flashpoint political issue in Australia, which sees the navy turning boats back to Indonesia when it is safe to do so.

Jakarta has halted cooperation with Canberra on the issue, but Johnston insisted: "People-smuggling is a serious problem in our region and Australia is really keen to work with Indonesia." — AFP


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