Arrupe Day Sees an Uncertain Future for Bhutanese Refugees in Eastern Nepal
14 November 2014

Aging people share their agony and hope of repatriation, local integration and resettlement (John Mezsia SJ / Jesuit Refugee Service)
It is estimated that 5 to 10,000 people will remain in the camps after resettlement. This group includes typically vulnerable people such as the elderly, those with disabilities, and those who have married into non-refugee families. What will happen to them? Will they remain stateless? Will they find themselves without the support that many will need given their vulnerability?

Nepal 14 2014 November - The refugee camps in Eastern Nepal have been home to an entire generation of Bhutanese of Nepali origin who were evicted from or fled Southern Bhutan in the early 90s. Many were born and brought up in the camps with no recollection of the country they call their motherland.

They have lived in huts in seven camps built by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – UNHCR – and supported by its partner agencies. Right from the start, the Bhutanese refugees set up schools in the camps with the close support of Caritas Nepal. Over the years, nearly all the Bhutanese children and youth went to school thanks to the Bhutanese Refugee Education Program. The Jesuit Refugee Service has been working closely with Caritas to run the program “by, with and for” the refugees. Over the past two decades, the program succeeded in providing inclusive quality education and to achieving close to universal literacy rates.

In the period between 1992 and 2006, fifteen rounds of bilateral talks were held between the Bhutanese and Nepalese governments. However, the talks did not result in a conclusive durable solution. By 2006, hopes of repatriation were fading. Acting on a suggestion by a Jesuit working with the JRS, the international community proposed a durable solution in the form of resettlement. Since then, 92,000 Bhutanese refugees have gone for resettlement in eight countries across the world, most notably in the United States of America.

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While the resettlement is seen to be largely successful, it comes with its own set of issues. The new beginning has not been rosy for everyone. The transition from refugee camp to city and town in the developed world has brought about psychological and cultural challenges. On the one hand, the young have adapted and feel empowered to pursue their dreams; while on the other, there have been cases of depression, even of suicide. The older generation finds it difficult to settle in a country so different to what they have known, while the new generation runs the risk of forgetting its Bhutanese identity.

Resettlement has affected education back in the camps in more ways than one. Teachers and students alike get their travel documents during the academic year; those still in the camps are always anticipating their own departure and the pool of resource people that the Education Program had nurtured in the past is fast depleting.

Six years after the resettlement began, there are 26,000 refugees plus remaining in the camps. Of these, a majority has applied for resettlement. Many are keen on joining their families and friends abroad. The market place is dotted with money-transfer agencies and conversations usually revolve round travel dates and host countries. Perhaps paradoxically, the national anthem of Bhutan is sung every morning in the camp schools. There are some refugees who think that resettlement deviates the focus from repatriation – a solution that many still cling to as their right, although it has been resolutely denied to them for so long. Then there are those who think that integration in Nepal is the next best alternative, given their historical and cultural ties with this country.

Ideas and hopes apart, things on the ground are uncertain. It is estimated that 5 to 10,000 people will remain in the camps after resettlement. This group includes typically vulnerable people such as the elderly, those with disabilities, and those who have married into non-refugee families. What will happen to them? Will they remain stateless? Will they find themselves without the support that many will need given their vulnerability?

Repatriation to Bhutan seems to be a distant, unlikely possibility. Integration in Nepal is easier said than done. The government does not seem open to the idea in a country that has its own infrastructural and economic issues, where jobs are scarce and where allocating land to refugees is a prospect that cannot be easily realized. That said, those refugees who stay behind, will surely be welcomed and will be able to contribute to the life of the local community… this not least because over the years, humanitarian agencies have made conscious efforts to build bridges through joint activities and support for the local people.

The Bhutanese refugees have been on life support for 22 years. What happens to those who cannot or do not want to access the durable solution of resettlement? They deserve a new life no less than their brothers and sisters who have gone to third countries, a new life that guarantees their dignity and their human rights. They deserve to be truly part of a country where they can give and take.

However, as things stand now, their future is uncertain and no one knows what will become of them. 







Press Contact Information
Stan Fernandes SJ
southasia.director@jrs.net
+91 11 4310 4661; +91 11 4953 4106