Frozen lives

The Bhutanese refugees of southeast Nepal after more than a decade of exile.

The road leading north from the town of Damak to the three clustered Beldangi refugee camps in southeast Nepal is paved until it reaches the police post marking the camps' entrance. After that, it becomes an uneven surface that eventually tapers off into a maze of dirt pathways. The lack of paved surfaces is only one example of the ephemeral character of infrastructure in the Bhutanese refugee camps, of which there are seven in Nepal. Most buildings are made of bamboo and thatch, and [none] have electricity, despite the misleading presence of power lines just outside the camp boundaries serving local Nepali citizens. Though the camps were not built for permanent residency, they are now in their second decade of existence.

The Beldangi camps in Nepal's Jhapa district house just under 50,000 Bhutanese refugees, most of whom have been in exile since 1992. The camps are remarkably well kept and free of litter, in stark contrast to most trash-filled Nepali communities, and are laid out in an ordered grid. Just outside their boundary, a row of makeshift shops sells booze, which is forbidden in the camps, and car batteries that refugees with a little money can purchase to power low-wattage items in their homes. Given the population density, as many as eight people crowd into 12-foot by 18-foot houses, in between which young children play in the afternoons. Four other camps in Nepal – Sanischare, Goldhap, Timai and Khudunabari – together house roughly the same number as the Beldangi camps, and another estimated 30,000 Bhutanese exiles live in India.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which began providing services to the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal in September 1991, operates with a USD 5.35 million annual budget and partners with four NGOs that operate in the camps. Because the refugees are not legally allowed to work in Nepal, UNHCR and its partners provide essential food and non-food items, shelter, medical care and education. The refugees left Bhutan in the first couple of years of the 1990s in the face of ethnic discrimination and repression, and despite a dozen meetings between Kathmandu and Thimphu to resolve the issue, they remain essentially stateless people. Officially, UNHCR says the camps are not permanent settlements, although in May 2000 the UNHCR chief, Sadako Ogata, said she was not "very optimistic" about the refugees' repatriation.

Although some political dissidents were leaving Bhutan in the late 1980s, substantial numbers of Nepali-speakers did not arrive in Nepal until 1991. By August of that year, an estimated 2500 refugees were residing illegally in Nepal, and by the close of 1991 their numbers had more than doubled to 6000. By August 1992, this flow had become a flood, with 62,000 Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, growing to 80,000 by June 1993, after which time few new refugees arrived. As of November 2002, there were 101,644 refugees registered in the camps, with the increase since 1993 almost totally accounted for by births.

Diplomats leading an EU delegation to the camps in July 2002 noted the "serious frustration among the refugees, especially youths" over the failure to initiate the repatriation procedure. A nine-month verification process was completed at one of the seven camps, Khudunabari, in December 2001, but the Bhutanese representatives of the Joint Verification Team have not returned to Nepal since departing with the refugees' completed forms more than a year ago. Nepal and Bhutan did not take any public steps forward on the issue in 2002, and in the fall of 2002 a sex abuse scandal involving women and children as young as seven led to allegations against two camp officials, in addition to 16 others, further dampening spirits in the camps.

Wait and see

While the refugees now live in densely populated, fenced-off camps in Nepal, most of them hail from small villages in agriculture-based southern Bhutan. For the older refugees, camp conditions represent a major disruption in life patterns to which adjustment has been difficult. For children who were born in the camps or who entered them at a young age, there loom the challenges of identity-formation and the lack of future prospects. Moreover, camp residents are plagued by the psychological toll of living a full 10 years and more in interim circumstances while awaiting a return to their homesteads in Bhutan, a return that may never be possible.

An aid worker who has spent more than five years working in Jhapa says the refugees face three primary problems in the camps: the burgeoning youth population, donor fatigue, and tension with the local community. More than 23,500 children have been born in the camps since 1992, and while schools have been established, there is little opportunity for young people. At the current population growth rate of 2.3 percent, there will be more than 127,000 refugees in the camps by 2012, more than a third under the age of 20. Some attempts have been made to provide technical training for refugee youth, including a World Food Programme-Caritas Nepal project involving several hundred refugees, but long-term employment prospects are dim. In addition, refugee children receive scant training in agricultural practices, suggesting a potential problem if they do return to Bhutan, where 90 percent of people make a livelihood from farming.

"We do apprehend difficulties in integrating them into physical work like farming on repatriation, as no child is use to hard work", explains SB Subba, chairman of the Bhutanese Refugees Representative Repatriation Committee (BRRRC). But, he adds, "Gradually they should become accustomed, provided the repatriation takes places before they become adults after which it will be difficult as they may feel ashamed to work in the field".

The second and third problems are not as serious as the first, but could destabilise the camps in the future. In the fall of 2002, several reports appeared in the Nepali media that UNHCR was considering closing down the camps, a rumour since denied by UNHCR officials. (The UNHRC Global Appeal 2003 states that the agency will continue to provide assistance "so long as they [Bhutanese refugees] are not allowed to work and remain dependent on external sources".) But the problem of donor fatigue remains, in part because most donors offered aid under the assumption that it was a short-term fill-gap to a problem that would be resolved within a reasonable period of time. With the refugee crisis now in its second decade, and the verification process stalled, refugees worry that assistance will be cut back.

The third problem, tension with local people, arises from two sources: competition in the labour pool and resentment over handouts. Refugee leaders' informal estimates suggest that most young men living in the camps work illegally outside them, making a daily wage of about NPR 60 (USD 0.8) for unskilled jobs and NPR 130 (USD 1.7) for skilled ones, saturating an already impoverished labour pool of Nepali citizens. And with Nepal's dire economic situation, some local residents resent the assistance meted out to the refugees. There is a perception that "refugees are getting everything", sums up one aid worker.

Other than working within the camp as adjuncts for relief agencies, the only employment legally available to the refugees is serving as camp teachers or medical workers [or camp secretary staff]. With a starting monthly "incentive" – the word 'salary' is not used – of NPR 937 (USD 12.2), the applicant pool for these positions is highly competitive. While refugees complain of insufficient medical services and lack of access to doctors, the schools run with remarkable efficiency. At the extension-IV school of Green Vale Academy in Beldangi-I camp, 29 teachers oversee 1222 middle school students. The classes are crowded and take place in thatch huts with dirt floors, but students are orderly and diligent. The curriculum centres on life in Bhutan, and Dzonga, the language of Bhutan's politically dominant ethnic group, is taught for six years beginning in class three. As most of the teachers lack formal training – many of them were students themselves when they left Bhutan – they admit that the schools provide a less than ideal education. Caritas provides some teacher training, but as Tara Nepal, a 25-year-old social studies teacher, says, "the education is not of the highest quality".

In an article about the camps that appeared in UNHCR's Refugees magazine, Jennifer Ashton, an Australian UNHCR officer working in Jhapa, says that, "In terms of camp set-up and services, these are really nice places – in large part due to the refugees themselves". The residents of the camps are not as laudatory in their descriptions of camp conditions, but there is a strong sense of community responsibility among them. When asked about their future, most students in the camp classrooms say they want to serve "my country" – Bhutan – as teachers or social workers, and many say they think they will move to Bhutan within one or two years. Whether they will be able to do so, or instead stay in Nepal indefinitely, remains to be seen.

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Himal Southasian