The long, long Lhotshampa exile

Potted plants on rusty metallic kerosene tins line the smooth, swept dirt path leading to the huts of Beldangi-I. Outside, the air is warm, the saplings growing in the planters try to make the area look less brown, and the winter sun blinds as it reflects off solar parabola cookers. Inside, the huts are cool and dark, the walls are plastered with newspaper, and bamboo partitions separate cooking area from the living space.

Beldangi-I is one of the seven refugee camps in the plains of southeast Nepal where the Lhotshampa refugees from Bhutan are housed. Ask to enter one at random, and it is the home of Sanumaya Karki Chettri, mother of three. She shakes her head as she remembers her family's flight from Bhutan 15 years ago. "We had our son with us, but we didn't think we'd be able to get our daughters out of the house. As we ran from our homes, we thought we were going to die. We thought – this is it. Our lives are over. We came here, and after a while, we found the camps."

Sanumaya's story is repeated everywhere in the seven camps, where there are more than 100,000 Nepali-speaking refugees waiting for a solution that has eluded them all these years. Evicted peasants from whom the government of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk feared demographic inundation of his Ngalong-dominated state, the refugees today make up a desperate category whose lives have been on hold for more than a decade- and-half. When they departed Bhutan, as the result of a mass fear psychosis created by the royal Druk government, they were un-politicised farmer families. Today, in exile and as refugees in open camps and jostled by the active public sphere of Nepal and neighbouring West Bengal, they have become aware of the world. Ironically, this very 'politicisation' of the refugee fold would make King Jigme and his government that much more unlikely to want to begin the process of repatriation. And so, throughout the period since 1990 when the first refugees began their flight, Thimphu has played the game of delaying the refugees' return, playing on Indian sensitivities on geopolitical grounds, the international hankering for a Himalayan Buddhist Shangri La to replace a despoiled Tibet, and taking advantage of the continuous political turmoil in the refugee host country.

The flight
It was between 1990 and 1992 that over 75,000 Lhotshampa (Nepali-speaking southern Bhutanese) were forced out of Druk Yul, leaving behind their farms, homes and, in many cases, members of family. They first entered India, where the authorities made it 'convenient' for them to traverse the Duars region to enter Nepal and its easternmost plains district of Jhapa. Most of the Lhotshampa arrived in southern Bhutan as economic migrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the Druk rulers used their labour to clear the malarial lower hills and earn revenue from this unproductive territory in the bargain. While a trickle of Nepali in-migration continued, by mid-20th century, much of the link to the 'mother country' was limited to marriage connections.

In 1980, the Thimphu government passed a Marriage Act which severely limited career options for Bhutanese married to non-Bhutanese. An amended Citizenship Act, passed in 1985, decreed that only children with both Bhutanese parents were eligible for citizenship, and that only those whose names were registered in the 1958 census were Bhutanese. That census had set onerous conditions relating to land tax receipts which discriminated against the Lhotshampa. Thimphu carried out a census in 1988, concentrating on the south, and claimed unconvincingly that over 20 percent of the population was made up of illegal immigrants. The census 'results' were used to energise the depopulation drive which followed. Tek Nath Rizal, a Royal Advisory Councillor and Lhotshampa elder, was imprisoned after he submitted a petition to King Jigme seeking redress. Unease spread across southern Bhutan, and in 1990, the first public demonstrations were held demanding civil and cultural rights.

The government alleged that anti-national terrorists were wreaking havoc in the south. While people had been leaving Bhutan since 1988, in 1991 the government began to carry out wide-scale evictions, closing southern schools, confiscating citizenship cards, dismissing southern Bhutanese government employees, and burning and demolishing homes. Many were forced to sign voluntary migration forms, which under Bhutanese laws ipso facto makes individuals non-citizens, which itself goes against accepted international legal principles. In 1992, the Nepal government invited the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assist the refugees. Over the years, the agency established the seven camps of Khudunabari, Timai, Goldhap, Beldangi-I, -II, and –II-Extension in Jhapa district, and Sanischare in Morang district.

The Royal Government of Bhutan has claimed that the refugees were illegal Nepali migrants into Bhutan, anti-nationalist criminals, and now freeloaders trying to live off UNHCR-supplied food and shelter. The Nepal government's position has been that the refugees are Bhutanese citizens and, if Thimpu will not accept them, they will have been pushed into the vacuum of statelessness. Fifteen rounds of talks between the Kathmandu and Thimphu governments – from October 1993 to December 2003 – yielded little result. One Kathmandu government imprudently agreed to a proposal from Thimphu to divide the refugees into four categories:  'genuine' Bhutanese forcefully evicted, 'voluntary emigrants' (a difficult call, because of the signatures extracted from many leaving for exile), non-Bhutanese, and Bhutanese criminals. A Nepal-Bhutan Joint Verification Team (JVT) was set up in December 2000, and it took up the Khudunabari camp as the place to test out the four categories. The team's nine-month verification exercise found that over 75 percent of the residents of Khudunabari were bonafide Bhutanese citizens of the first two categories (evictees and 'voluntary' migrants). Even though the exercise was meant to facilitate repatriation, a single repatriation has yet to occur in the intervening years.

Meanwhile, the Nepal-Bhutan parleys have remained suspended since 22 December 2003, when refugees at Khudunabari camp, according to Thimphu's national daily Kuensel, attacked the Bhutanese delegates of the JVT. Thimpu was quick to take advantage of the incident, using it as another excuse to delay the process of repatriation.

Kuensel reports that the Druk government is still waiting for Nepal to launch an investigation into the "attack". The bilateral talks would not progress without the punishment of the perpetrators of the event, and Bhutan "would not accept a single refugee from the camps." Nepal, for its part, has shown little initiative in restarting talks. Even though King Gyanendra is presently head of government, as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, he has not made any public reference to the refugee issues in the eleven months since the royal takeover in Kathmandu. And through all this inaction of the Kathmandu Government, the number of refugees has increased to 85,000, then 95,000, and now to more than 105,000 people in the plains of Eastern Nepal, waiting to go home.

State of the camp
What is most remarkable and disturbing about the refugee situation is that hardly anything has changed over 16 long years. If there has been a shift, it has been in the condition of the subject population itself. In the camps, there has been a dip in morale, increasing indiscipline, a rise in alcohol abuse and domestic violence. The youth are educated and qualified to work, but are not allowed to work. They may get jobs, but with shamefully low wages due to their illegal status and oversupply. One aid worker revealed that the Nepali government is "relatively lenient" about employment, and so every morning before seven, a stream of bicycles leaves the camps, heading to the nearby town of Damak. The remainder who seek work, meanwhile, hang around the camps, performing jobs far below their capabilities.

The letdown felt by the educated youth is one of the larger tragedies of camp life. Psychologists have repeatedly warned that the mental health of the refugees continues to deteriorate. As frustration increases, discipline has gone down; fights between refugees, according to camp security volunteer Birkha Bahadur Tamang, "break out more and more frequently." Discipline in schools, too, has become more of a problem as tensions affect students' performance. Says Tek Nath Rizal, "There is terrible frustration within the camps, and some young people feel they have no option but to pick up the gun. Groups have come to me asking to back their attempts, but I am a human rights activist who does not believe in violence. We must resolve the problem peacefully."

It has been a decade and half since the Lhotshampa arrived. Children have become adults; toddlers are today in their late teens. Adults have grown old. And many babies are born in the camps, in whose enclosed demography the growth rate is nearly two percent. The death rate is low, and so the growth rate translates to a population of well over 110,000 by 2008 and 115,000 by 2010. Already, there are 42,000 Lhotshampa children in the camps.

Among those who have let the refugees down —  besides the Nepal and Indian governments who never showed adequate interest, the scholars and the activists who all-too-quickly lost interest, and the international and New Delhi media for whom they are invisible – the refugees tend to name their own leadership. When asked about the refugee leaders and human rights activists, one camp secretary – an elected refugee representative – grows indignant. "We haven't chosen any of these leaders collectively. They have no mandate, and they have not even met and talked to the refugees properly. We have little respect for these leaders based in Kathmandu, Birtamode and Biratnagar."

The criticism can do the leaders an injustice, because they were often individuals with no public experience in Bhutan, suddenly asked to turn into spokesmen and activists. The tenacity of human rights activists such as the much-respected Tek Nath Rizal, Ratan Gazmere and others must be respected, for having persevered amidst not so much a hostile environment as a disinterested one.

Today, the overall international environment has tuned off the refugee problem, and yet the refugee leaders continue their often-lonely activities, with little funds and a dwindling band of international supporters. Says Tek Nath Rizal, "The refugees' morale is very poor right now, and there is a great deal of confusion as to what is going on. We are frustrated – because our plight is overshadowed by the other issues in Nepal. The constant state of political turmoil here has worked to help the Bhutanese government keep its citizens out. There seems to be no progress in the negotiations between the two governments. The general feeling is this: the present situation cannot continue."

Upsurge in politicisation
Nepal had only just achieved freedom from the restrictive Panchayat era when the Bhutanese crisis arose, and thus the host country was a political hothouse when the refugees arrived. It was perhaps natural for the exiles, too, to be carried away with the spree of setting up political parties. This politicisation along party lines may not be the best thing to have happened to the refugees, for it distracted the leadership away from the issues of human rights  and early return. Refugees and refugee leaders within the camps suggest the rise of political parties has in fact impeded the way to reaching a solution. Instead of working together, the parties have competed with one another.

The rise of different political groupings has meant that the agenda differs. At present, one such party, the Bhutan Gorkha National Liberation Front (BGNLF), has raised concern with its attempts at "self-repatriation": attempts to cross over the border to India to return home to Bhutan. While it is heartening that at last there is some activism from within the refugee fold, the problem, however, is that many of those taken on the protests are not ensured protection of any form, and tend to be children, women and the elderly. The past few months have seen a number of such attempts at return, including a crossing and pamphlet distribution in Bhutan on 27 November, and a recent attempt to cross over on 17 December, stopped at the Nepal-India border by Indian security.

Discussions with the refugees show how their level of political awareness has changed since they were thrown out of Bhutan, by the very nature of their situation. When asked about her level of awareness in 1991, Narmaya Guragain of Beldangi-I gives a short laugh. "We didn't know anything about 'other countries', about  political parties, or human rights organisations," she says. But now, she and her family are very aware of issues of democracy, freedom and human rights. They would like to ensure that on returning to Bhutan, the government guarantees these rights.

While the Bhutanese refugees have become more politically conscious, they have also had to deal with unexpected social turbulence. Indeed, life in Nepal has raised an unexpected issue: that of caste versus ethnicity. According to lay refugees and activists, in Bhutan, the communities mixed freely as Nepali-speakers with the caste and ethnic boundaries present but not emphasised. Life in the camps, however, has exposed the refugees to Nepali society, where caste plays a more significant role in social relations and where the post-1990 era of freedom gave birth to enthusiastic ethnic assertion. The members of relatively small ethnic communities in Bhutan came into contact with the larger groups in Nepal, and became sensitised to the politics of assertion. Many formerly 'Hindu' families converted to Buddhism. When they emerged from Bhutan, the Lhotshampa could be differentiated from the Nepalis of Nepal in the cross-ethnic and cross-caste flavour of their leadership. Sadly, today the refugees are riven with community-based differences. A united community that was evicted from Bhutan purely on the basis of the language they spoke is seeing unexpected divisions – one Lhotshampa elder spoke with despair about the fracturing of the Lhotshampa identity that has occurred simply because of the influence of Nepali politics.

The other divide that is arising in the refugee camps is between those who wish to go back to Bhutan and those who want to be resettled. "Unsurprisingly, it is this younger generation that is pushing for resettlement," says C I Thapa, camp secretary of Beldangi-I. While there may be a deep desire even among those born in the Nepal camps to return 'home', they do not see this happening in the near future. When asked about their plans for the next few years, they say, without pause, that they will be working in Nepal or 'outside'.  Already, many refugees have left for other parts of Nepal and India, whether for temporary or long-term work.

Employment in Nepal has other implications for the refugees. Regardless of whether it is legal or not, taking up work also suggests a degree of integration and, in many ways, the refugees have assimilated out of necessity. The Bhutanese and Nepali teenagers study at the same high schools and there are marriages between the locals of Jhapa and Morang and the camp inmates. But the majority of those in the camps know what they want, and it is not assimilation: they want to return home,ensured safety, dignity and honour, to the lands and houses that are rightfully theirs. By international law, this is what they deserve. As long as they have to stay in the camps, the refugees only ask for a few things: for the right to education; the right to live without fear; to have access to medical facilities; and for Nepal, Bhutan, and the international community to work towards a 'solution'. What the Bhutanese refugees do not want is their present situation of not knowing what to expect from the future and from the agencies mandated to protect them – the UNHCR most importantly.

225 million dollars
According to the figures, the Bhutanese refugee-budget of UNHCR has been increasing almost annually since 2000 (2000 – USD 5.1 million; 2001 – 5.3 million; 2002 – 5.6 million; 2003 – 5.5 million; 2004 – 6.9 million; 2005 – 6.8 million.) When asked about the decrease in global donor pledges for 2006, Abraham Abraham, UNHCR representative to Nepal, said that overall donations to the organisation had decreased for 2005 due to the needs of other humanitarian crises such as the Kashmir earthquake. However, Abraham firmly denied that there had been reductions in the budget for Nepal in the previous year – "We have never cut our budgets, we have always tried to prioritise the needs of the camps." While UNHCR insists that assistance has not decreased, it does state that as of 1 January 2006, there will be sharp reductions in aid to the camps. Refugees are also concerned about the cuts in health, education and basic necessities that have already occurred.

The past 15 years have seen over USD 225 million spent by the UNHCR, the World Food Programme and international NGOs such as the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and Caritas, agencies which have been with the refugees throughout even as the world has forgotten them. The UN refugee agency has contributed nearly 40 percent of the figure, and UNHCR now wants to reposition its focus from 'relief' to 'development'.

When the refugees are asked about their lives in the camps, almost all of them give a similar response: that life has been hard, but bearable – up until now, when aid, they say, is steadily decreasing. All are apprehensive about life after 1 January, when UNHCR plans to cut its direct assistance. Among other reductions, the agency will decrease the supply of blankets, will no longer supply vegetables, and will only, according to Caritas, provide for education up to Grade 5 (at present, it funds up to Grade 8).

The refugees are not the only group frustrated with these cutbacks. Father Varkey Perrekat, Country Director of Jesuit Refugee Services in Nepal and also head of Caritas' 13-year old Bhutanese Refugee Education Programme, has one major concern: UNHCR's decision to stop funding grades 6 to 8.  "UNHCR says their primary stops after class 5, but their mandate says it is up to class 8. In other places, they have also helped finance post-secondary – those numbers of refugees, however, are far lower than here." There is a discrepancy between what UNHCR and its implementing partners have to say about assistance to the camps: UNHCR refutes claims that their funding for 6-8 will come to a halt.

As both Father Varkey and those in the camps reiterate, even if the refugees have nothing else, the children here receive education.  However, the reason for which development experts promote education – as the means for breaking the cycle of poverty – does not necessarily apply here since legal employment is not an option.

Karan Gurung, a grade 12 English student of the Sanischare camp in Morang, describes his future plans: "I already teach in the  school here, grades 1 and 2," he says.

"Later, I want to do my BA, and teach at a boarding [private school]. I know finding that job will be difficult though. There are many who are teaching outside, but there are also many who complete their degrees who think 'ah, I can move out now!' but then are forced to return to the camps because they can't get jobs. Those are probably the most frustrated people here."

The UNHCR seems to be promoting self-reliance projects in order to (in the words of former High Commissioner of the agency Sadako Ogata), "facilitate (the refugees') integration and gradually phase out direct involvement in the camps." But UNCHR representative Abraham's response reflects a different reality: he says that the projects (such as the production of soap and blackboard chalk) exist simply to help the refugees earn a little money to supplement what UNHCR already provides.

Nepali laws also limit refugee activity: legally, the refugees can only work within the camps, and they are restricted to selling the items they produce within the camps.

But if the projects do not – because they cannot – promote self-dependence, why does UNHCR, in its reports and High Commissioners' speeches, claim that they are?

The argument that "something is better than nothing" does not necessarily hold true in this case, as the organisation is mandated to protect and help refugees, and not just simply give them enough to stay alive.

If UNHCR "[is] not phasing out aid", and is instead attempting to create a development-based approach to assistance, then why do many of the camp secretaries – elected representatives of the refugees – feel as though there is little, if any, effective communication between them and UNHCR? And how can UNHCR possibly shift from relief to development, and stop providing staples such as vegetables, when the refugees are legally prohibited from employment?  Asked where the refugees will get these supplies once UNHCR stops providing them, the agency gives the following response: "UNHCR will continue to ensure its protection mandate and is hopeful that all the major areas of assistance, like food, health and education will continue in 2006 subject to donor funding and pending the implementation of lasting solutions for the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal." [Emphasis added] While this may be a standard official response, it reflects the urgency of the situation: if donors, who have already provided over 14 years of funding for an issue they believed would be resolved within a few years, tire of giving donations, or even reduce the assistance they give, the refugees face a dire predicament. It seems the responsibility of UNHCR, given the obvious incapacities of the current Nepal government, should be to ratchet up its lobbying efforts rather than to throw its hands up in despair, as it is doing.

India and Nepal
So who bears responsibility for the continuing refugee deadlock, if we take it for granted that the Thimphu government is steadfast in its resolve to continue the deadlock? Discussions with different groups yield a multitude of answers that eventually boil down to the same few points: solving the refugee problem lies in the hands of the Nepali government, and in that government having enough courage to call an end to bilateral talks and ask for the involvement of a third party. Says refugee leader Ratan Gazmere, "The government of Nepal is the only party that can legitimately internationalise this issue." As early as 1994, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala stated that the resolution of the refugee problem was not possible through bilateral negotiations, and warranted the involvement of a third party.

Subsequently, however, Koirala backtracked, insisting that bilateral talks were the only way to go. Why the change in heart? "It is South Block," says a Bhutanese activist, referring to the mandarins who run India's foreign policy. India, of course, vehemently denies any suggestion that New Delhi is influencing Kathmandu's policy on the matter, labelling such claims as ludicrous.

India's 'culpability' in the refugee affair starts right at the beginning, for it was the country of first refuge when the exodus began 16 years ago. Indian diplomats have been relying on the lame excuse that by treaty the Bhutanese have open access across the border to West Bengal and Assam, but the fact is that the mass outflow of people from a neighbouring country required a humanitarian and diplomatic response that was just not there. Another aspect not considered because of the overwhelming focus on the one-lakh plus refugees in camps in Nepal is the more than 30,000 refugees in India, many of them Lhotshampa but others also from the Sarchop community of eastern Bhutan. These vulnerable exiles are not even recognised as refugees under Indian law.

Theories abound as to why India is so insistent the negotiations between Thimpu and Kathmandu remain bilateral: fear of international involvement in its Himalayan 'backyard'; concerns about Bhutan using its 'China card' and developing links northwards; and the political and economic gains India receives from Bhutan as a stable, cooperative, efficient monarchy. New Delhi's policy may be influenced also because of: Thimphu's vote in international fora such as the United Nations which India can count as its own; Thimphu's goodwill in keeping Bodo and militants off the jungles of southern Bhutan; Thimphu's willingness to have the Indian military stationed in its territory; and the setting up of turnkey Indian-aided hydropower plants that provide electricity for north and east India – the latest is the USD 800 million Tala Hydroelectric Project. Most importantly, perhaps, India is unwilling to destabilise the existing status quo in the eastern Himalayan kingdom, as long as the refugee leadership or Nepal's foreign policy establishment are unable to raise the level of embarrassment.

For these reasons, India remains uncompromising in its stance that the solutions to the refugee problem must result from bilateral negotiations between Bhutan and Nepal. Even as the United States, the European Parliament and the European Commission have expressed their concerns over the refugee issue in the past, India has remained silent (see accompanying interview). Overall, it can be said that the Indian government's stance is made easier by the utter lack of regard for the refugee issue among the mainstream intelligentsia in the Indian capital, for whom the grimy Nepali-speaking refugee fold holds little  attraction in comparison to the smart English-speaking Ngalong royalty and elite who descend from the kingdom in the clouds.

If New Delhi's response to the long-standing refugee affair has been disappointing, Kathmandu's record is nothing less than abject. Nepal, certainly, deserves credit for having hosted the refugees for nearly 16 years, providing not only precious land in Jhapa and Morang but also moral support and livelihood. But much of the failure and stagnation of the refugee issue must be laid at the door of the political leadership in Nepal. Indeed, when Kathmandu's politicians did wield power for much of the period since 1990, they displayed a maddening double standard vis-à-vis Lhotshampa refugee policy. The bilateral resolution of the issue has become, dangerously, a question of honour for the Nepali government – a paradoxical situation since the government has achieved so little. "The politicians say one thing when they are in power, and then another once they leave," says Ratan Gazmere. "While in office, they insist that bilateral talks are the only means of resolving the issue. Then, the next day, when they are out of office, they call for internationalisation and third party involvement."

The reason for speaking of a bilateral resolution while in office is obviously due to fear of Indian displeasure. Meanwhile, the prospects of refugee repatriation has been constantly clouded by political upheaval in Nepal and the high turnover in the Nepali government — Thimphu has taken full advantage of the turmoil in Nepal, and King Jigme would have taken some satisfaction in the February 1 coup by King Gyanendra for its ability to make Nepal completely introverted. And his satisfaction would have been justified, because King Gyanendra as head of government has made nary a mention nor taken an initiative on the refugee issue in the 11 ensuing months. It is worth remembering that it was in the autocratic Panchayat era of his brother, Birendra, that Tek Nath Rizal was abducted in Nepali territory and handed over to the Bhutan government representatives waiting with an aircraft on the tarmac of the airport in Kathmandu.

In the past, it was incapability and confusion in the political ranks in Kathmandu that kept them from lobbying to isolate Thimphu and make a return of the refugees possible. Today, under King Gyanendra's direct rule, there does not even seem an intention to engage with the issue. The foreign ministers of Nepal and Bhutan, King Gyanendra's handpicked Ramesh Nath Pandey and King Jigme's handpicked Khandu Wangchuk, did meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in October, and then again on 10 November at the SAARC Summit in Dhaka. Nothing significant happened in those meetings, however, and the implementation of the verification exercise and repatriation of refugees identified as 'Bhutanese' seems more remote than ever. The most important sticking point would be Thimphu's insistence that those idenfitied as 'voluntary migrants' are not citizens of Druk anymore. Kathmandu has been singularly unsuccessful in making the obvious point that this makes for statelessness and, according to international law and practice, Thimphu has no choice but to take even these so-called 'willing exiles' back.

If the two governments (Kathmandu and Thimphu) have reached accordance on any position, they have yet to make it public. When contacted about developments in the two and a half years since the last bilateral talks, and to understand the present government's stance on the issue, the Under Secretary at the Nepali Foreign Ministry, Deepak Dhital, replied: "Not much new has happened. As you know, we are still trying to engage in talks, and this is a continuous process."  Meanwhile, on 28 December, Foreign Minister Pandey told a Kathmandu daily that "the environment was not right" to conduct talks with Bhutan. He did not elaborate.

Why the neglect?
Other refugee situations – those of the Balkans, Tibet, Darfur and Palestine – attract sustained international attention. So why not the Bhutanese Lhotshampa? The international media's focus on the dramatic has worked to the detriment of these Bhutanese refugees. "We are paying for our docile nature," says one human rights activist with understandable bitterness. "We were too cooperative, too patient, too willing to trust both the Nepali government and our own. Had there been bloodshed or famine, maybe then the international community would have listened. If our boys had picked up the gun, perhaps then they would have acted."

The one-lakh plus refugees today are increasingly seen with some irritation by the international community – UNHCR does not say it outright, but it would clearly like to settle the matter and get out of here even though the agency and its partners WFP, Caritas and LWF have been the most consistent supporters of the refugees to date.

The activism of the US embassy in Kathmandu of about a decade when it comes to the Lhotshampa refugees is not evident today, and European governments merely keep an eye on the matter today – a far cry from the days when the European Parliament debated the refugee issue. European delegations visiting Southasia no longer carry with them "Bhutanese refugee" dossiers.  The scholars and activists in New Delhi and in the West who came to the humanitarian support of the refugees have today turned to other hotspots.

The Lhotshampa refugees have lost some of their own most articulate leaders. For example, Bhim Subba, a refugee who was part of the dasho nobility, and edited the fine journal The Bhutan Review for a few years has migrated to Canada. Rakesh Chhetri, the scholar who kept the candle burning for long years in Kathmandu, is now an émigré to the United States. Today, the refugees lack even the expertise to run a website.

The road ahead…
The Thimphu regime and the Lhotshampa refugees are clearly engaged in an unequal fight. The Nepali-speaking refugees, fractured among themselves, living on the dole and displaying little or no militancy, are battling with the appreciative international (including Indian) perception of Thimpu's calm, order and cleanliness. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk's projected humility, the upcoming constitution (which has no reference to nor space for the refugees) and his recent announcement of abdication and handing over power to his son by 2008, all work to add to his appeal, and to disadvantage the refugees of Jhapa and Morang. The late Indian diplomat J N Dixit's comment in 1994 – that "it's only a hundred thousand people" – failed to spark the outrage it warranted at the time. Today, the Subcontinental community of state and non-state actors seem all too willing to see these Nepali-speaking exiles, in the words of one commentator, "disappear into the Southasian night".

Sixteen years on, the situation has reached a breaking point. "The people see no way out," says one prominent Bhutanese activist, "there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Before, I've always thought – this could take place, or the following situation may come to pass, but now, I just don't know what we can do." The attempts at just picking up and going back to Bhutan, organised by the BGNLF, indicate the level of frustration in the refugee community. It has reached such a state that many are willing to take whatever risks necessary to draw international attention to their cause. While the Lhotshampa refugee fold thus far has been marked by passivity, it will not be such a surprise if some youngsters even at this late date turn militant. While a violent turn of events will certainly rebound against the refugees themselves, it is the international community which would have to share in the blame for not having done enough when there was the time – full decade and a half.

In terms of practicality, allowing the problem to 'resolve itself' – that is, permitting the refugees to trickle out of the camps, find work around India and Nepal, and slowly integrate into Nepali and Indian life – is the easy option. This is clearly what Thimphu wants which is why it has used a strategy of continuous prevarication. However, for everyone else this would set a dangerous precedent. Continuing to neglect the issue will inflict the most damage on the refugees first, but then Nepal will be the next biggest loser. As the camp secretary of Sanischare, S P Pradhan says, "If Nepal is willing to take in all the Nepali-speakers of Darjeeling, Burma, and Bhutan, fine!

That's what will happen – Bhutan will continue to chase out its people and others will follow suit once they realise they can do so without fear of repercussion."

Asked about how to resolve the long-running crisis, aid workers, heads of agencies, activists, and the refugees themselves eventually meet at one word: 'choices'.

The refugees must be provided with information and given the right to make the decision about where they want to live. Insisting that all return to Bhutan is not viable, since some will not want to return, and does little other than fulfil a political agenda. Many educated refugees have already, or are, leaving for life overseas. Third country resettlement, also raised by UNHCR, seems hardly a panacea as it is expected that no more than few thousand would even be taken in by 'resettlement countries'. Holding out the hope of mass resettlement in Western countries may not be wise, and could be seen as playing with refugee sentiment.

This much is clear: a durable solution to the refugee problem will require the host country Nepal to generate the courage within itself to declare that bilateral talks have been a waste of time, and that a third party needs to get involved – perhaps as a mediator. The international community must not become blinded by the promises of the new Bhutanese constitution, and must put pressure on Thimphu to repatriate those it must take back – whoever was regarded as a citizen by the Thimphu state before 1990, whether they were evicted or went out in supposed voluntary exile. So long as the Bhutanese refugees want to go back, Thimphu has no choice but to take them back. The international community must understand that, in the eastern Himalaya of Southasia, there exists a state which has created the largest per capita refugee population in the world. The world should be told that there are well over a hundred thousand people who have had their lives on hold for a decade and half now. How much longer would the world have them wait?

"There is no level of concern."

How was it when the refugees first arrived?
Back then, 15 years ago, we were agitated, afraid and traumatised. The vast majority were farmers, and they were worried about what would happen to their families. Today, the people are still afraid, but the nature of the trauma has changed and, in a sense, it is even worse. There is a high degree of frustration and a sense of being let down by everyone. The refugees do not feel they are being treated as human beings.

The refugees' high point was the European Parliament resolution in March 1996. Yes, that was a demonstration of concern. But then the European Union, the United Nations and the European Commission – those in the position to act – did nothing. The general policy throughout has been, "just keeping them alive is enough, we do not need to put pressure on Thimpu." If others had acted after the EP resolution, we would have had a breakthrough.

What about the UNHCR's focus on making the refugees self-sufficient?
The reality is quite the opposite. The agency is trying to wash its hands off the problem. Despite its statements to the contrary, it is in fact cutting down on aid. It is almost as if they are saying, "please, let us leave you." The UNCHR is not following its mandate. It is supposed to be caring for the refugees, and should not be compelling the refugees to choose an option that is easiest for UNHCR. The refugees want to return to Bhutan, but the UNHCR continuously throws cold water on this, and neither is it proactively  working on repatriation.

What about the governments?
Everyone seems to be engaged in seeking the 'easy way out'. They are tightening the noose around the refugees' necks, and we are forced by lack of adequate food, education and shelter to leave the camps. Support has dwindled, and the people are fighting to survive. Their vulnerability has increased greatly.

Is there possibility of militancy?
The youth is increasingly frustrated, because there is nothing for them to do. Responsible refugee leaders have tried to emphasise the need for a peaceful and amicable solution. The international community must help them in this.

What about the present Kathmandu government?
As far as I know, there has been no reaction from the present government of Nepal. There is, it seems, no level of concern. We have been lobbying with the Nepali government since 1997, asking them to internationalise this issue, since we do not believe it can be resolved bilaterally. The situation is worsening, and returning home is the only way to implement full justice. If this is not viable, then we must of course look at other options: look, people cannot live in the camps forever!

Are you for third-country resettlement?
The refugees must be given the options of a return, first and foremost, but also the choice of third-country resettlement and local integration. Allow them to make choices and opt for a more permanent future. This is where we have a difference of opinion. Some refugee leaders say everyone must return to Bhutan, but I say – it's been 15 years. Let them move on.

Kabita Parajuli is a contributing editor to this magazine.

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Himal Southasian