Ukraine crisis: Nepalis there say the crisis isn’t a crisis if you can sneak into Europe easily, cheaply

Six months ago, Bibek Basnet from Banepa, Kavre, decided to leave Nepal and go to Ukraine to fulfil his dream of living in Europe. He had travelled to Ukraine on a student visa, but his intention before he left Nepal was to get citizenship in an EU country and settle there. For that, he had paid an agent over Rs 1 million.

As soon as he got there, the dispute between Ukraine and Russia escalated and his plans hit a brick wall.

“I feel fortunate to still be alive,” says Basnet. “Things are really bad there. The sound of bombs, sirens and bullets were ever-present and most of us feel lucky to have been able to flee.”

Basnet decided to flee away from the Ukraine crisis to the country of his dreams – Portugal – where he intended to obtain a resident permit and fulfil his dream of becoming a European citizen.

Getting to Portugal was not easy. Travelling through Poland, Germany, France and Spain, he and a few other Nepalis reached Portugal.

“We didn’t face any big problem because people knew we were fleeing from a war-torn country. We travelled mostly by train,” says Basnet. 

He says the Ukraine crisis has had both a positive and a negative impact on students like him. While their studies have halted, most of them have been able to get to a European country without spending as much as they would have had to otherwise.

After Russia’s attack on Ukraine, a lot of Nepalis have fled the country and have taken refuge in neighbouring Poland and Slovakia. Most of them have taken the chance to enter Europe, says a Nepali diplomat as many like Basnet have decided to go to Portugal to fulfil their European dream.

Noone wants to return home

Nepalis travelling to Portugal via Poland.

Initially, NRNA Poland helped a lot of Nepalis who fled the Ukraine crisis. Now, NRNA Portugal has also stepped up its effort to help these Nepalis.

“Around 100 people have contacted us. A lot of them are going to Portugal,” says Jeevan KC, the president of the NRNA Poland.

Nepali Embassy in Barcelona, Spain, says 536 Nepali nationals have left Ukraine for bordering countries. Out of them, 427 have gone to Poland, 71 to Slokavia, 27 to Romania, 7 to Hungary and 4 to Moldovia.

KC says apart from Portugal, many have gone to France and some to Germany.

“But, I think everyone’s key destination is Portugal,” adds KC.

Out of 500 odd people, no one has requested to be rescued back to Nepal, informs KC. He further adds that the NRNA Poland had spent nearly $10,000 to help people who fled the Ukraine crisis.

In Slovakia’s Bratislava, Jaya Prasad Siwakoti also did his part to help Nepalis who fled the war zone. He turned his restaurant into a refugee camp where Nepalis could come and stay. Siwakoti says everyone who he gave refuge to have left for Portgual. 

“I wanted to give a place they could call home. But, wherever they go from here is their choice,” says Siwakoti. 

He says he is preparing to help more Nepalis who he think will flee as the Ukraine crisis further goes up.

“Slovakia doesn’t have a lot of Nepali and I feel really happy whenever I meet one. So I want to tell people if you flee Ukraine, you can come here,” he says.

People are going to Portugal because the country has opened its door to Ukrainians. People other than Ukrainians can stay in Portugal and apply for asylum. 

Why Portugal?

NRNA Portugal says that people choose Portugal for obtaining residency quickly.

Portugal has attracted many Nepalis amid the Ukraine crisis. A lot of them take a Schengen visa and stay in Portugal illegally. This has been the go-to destination of almost every Nepali in Europe.

The reason for this is most people get a residency card after spending a year in the country. During the Maoists insurgency, a lot of people had taken residency from other countries seeking asylum there but since then, Portugal has been Nepalis’ preferred destination as countries have stopped offering asylum.

According to government data, over 7,000 people have taken up Portuguese passports. This is what attracts people, say the NRNA officials from Portugal.

“But as soon as they get the passport, they leave for other European countries,” says Kamal Bhattarai from NIALP, an intercultural association based in Lisbon, Portugal.

Most people would go to the United Kingdom, but after Brexit, that has stopped as people now prefer to go to Belgium, Denmark, Norway and Germany, says Bhattarai.

Nepalis amid the Ukraine crisis

Over 500 Nepalis have left Ukraine for Portugal.

There are many Nepalis who went to study in Ukraine and are now in a pickle regarding what to do thanks to the Ukraine crisis. One of them is Jyoti Karki from Ramechhap who had travelled to Ukraine to get a degree. She is now in Germany with her relatives. 

“I’m looking at studying here if possible. If not, I’ll probably return to Nepal,” says Karki, adding her goal is to gain knowledge from Europe and not a residency.

But, she says that many do not think like her. She says hundreds of Nepalis go to Ukraine just to get into Europe and that hundreds are planning to go to Portugal via Poland. 

Yet, some Nepalis have not been so fortunate. Prashant Tamang from Nuwakot spent nearly Rs 1 million to get to Ukraine but due to the war, he wanted to flee. But, it was not easy as he spent over $5,000 to get a 10-day visa to go to European countries so that he could stay away from the Ukraine crisis. 

“I feel that that was a waste as now everyone is going there for free,” says Tamang.

Like everyone, Tamang left Kiyev and went to Poland.  But, his journey to Poland wasn’t easy. He says despite having a Schengen visa, he left Ukraine like a criminal.

“We had no food to eat, only a little water to drink and no place to sleep. I’ve spent over Rs 1.5 million to get here and sometimes I think what for,” says Tamang, adding agents in Nepal will take be even more active and con Nepalis who have European dreams.

Painful stories

The most affected by this are still the people who really went there to study. Rakesh Chaudary from Rajbiraj went to Ukraine three years ago to become a doctor. He did not go there with a dream of entering a Schengen country. Enrolled in the MBBS programme that can go up to six years, he has only completed half of it and the Ukraine crisis now has forced him to think about other options.

“I don’t know what to do now,” he says from Poland’s capital, Warsaw.

Unlike others, he is not bothered about obtaining a permanent residency. All he cares about right now is his education. He has spent nearly Rs 3 million in Ukraine and is now looking for places in Europe he can transfer his credits so he can complete his MBBS.

“If I can’t find a solution, I’ll have wasted a lot of money and three years of my life,” he says.

He says that he cannot return home because he knows how much his parents went through to get him there. 

“I pray to God every day to help me find a solution. I don’t know what to do,” he says, adding there are a few more students like him who need help. 

The war is also affecting Nepali businesses. The NRNA Ukraine’s president Hari Malla is a tea trader based in Ukraine for the last 39 years. But due to the Ukraine crisis, Malla has fled Ukraine is and is currently in Turkey.

“I’m 61 now. Where do I go? What do I do? Things are tough right now,” says Malla. 

He says he is in Turkey after getting a call from his peers asking him to flee the country for the time being.

“I won’t return until things are stable,” he says, adding there are still a few Nepalis in Ukraine.

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Ranabhat is an Onlinekhabar correspondent, based in Spain.

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