Nepal has become the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to provide Covid-19 jabs to refugees through its national vaccination rollout.
According to the UN refugee agency in Kathmandu, Nepal started to inoculate the Covid vaccine to the Bhutanese refugees living in eastern part of the country from March 7.
The refugees at the settlement in the Jhapa district were vaccinated as part of the second phase of that rollout, which started on 7 March and targets people over the age of 65.
Nepal started receiving Bhutanese refugees mostly Nepali speaking Bhutanese from the 1990s and over 100,800 have crossed the border via India and started seeking asylum in eastern Nepal. After Bhutan refused to take them back, the UN refugee agency and some western countries started taking them under the third country settlement programme.
Under this plan that started from 2007, 100,000 Bhutanese refugees have resettled in various western counties like the USA, Australia, Canada and others and now, there are around 18,000 refugees living in Nepal. Now they have stopped taking the Bhutanese refugees as resettlement reaches its end in 2016.
The country kicked off its vaccination campaign on 27 January after the Indian government donated one million doses of Covishield, the India-produced version of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. In the first phase, frontline health workers, sanitation workers, hygiene workers and security officials were vaccinated.
Local authorities, refugee leaders and security officials set up a temporary vaccination centre at the refugee settlement and as of 24 March, some 668 refugees above the age of 65 had received vaccinations against the virus across the country, according to the UN agency for refugees.
More refugees will be enrolled in the vaccination programme as the government receives additional supplies of vaccines, the agency said in a statement.
Nepal hosts nearly mostly Tibetans and Bhutanese refugees with arrival date in 1959 and in the early 1990s respectively.
Since the onset of the pandemic, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency has been working closely with other UN agencies and government authorities to advocate for the inclusion of refugees in Covid-19 preparedness and response plans.
“The Government of Nepal has shown exemplary leadership for public health responses by including refugees in the national vaccination plans and rollout,” said Carolin Spannuth Verma, UNHCR’s Representative in Nepal.
To date, Nepal has reported 276,750 confirmed Covid cases and 3,027 deaths.
“The risk of Covid-19 is the same for all. It doesn’t matter if you are a refugee or not,” said Shrawan Kumar Timilsina, the Chief District Officer of Jhapa, in eastern Nepal where the country’s two refugee settlements are located. “Protecting the life of all people is our priority.”
Bhakti Prasad Baral, 83, fled Bhutan in 1992 and is now living in Beldangi settlement in Jhapa. He said that he felt “lucky” to get the vaccine.
“It was really difficult to endure what was going on because of the virus,” said the octogenarian, who works as a Hindu priest in his community. “I have no words to thank the Government of Nepal for paying attention to older persons like us.”