For Bhutan's stateless, new fears emerge
More than 90,000 refugees have resettled in the US, while others remain in limbo
Dawa Tshering Tamang sits with his family in his home in the Sanischare refugee camp in southern Nepal (Photo by Francis Wade)
- Francis Wade, Damak
- July 16, 2014
The move Dawa Tshering Tamang is soon to make will split his family. His father and mother want to stay in the camp in southern Nepal they’ve called home for 22 years. But Dawa sees little point in hanging around in the hope that he will one day be able to return to Bhutan, from where he and more than 100,000 were expelled in the early 1990s.
It’s a dilemma that afflicts thousands of families in the two remaining camps for Bhutanese in Nepal – to stick it out, hoping that Bhutan’s government will finally accept them back, or to fly halfway around the world to begin a new life in a third country. Dawa, 28, says he made up his mind some time ago. His file will be processed this month, and after that he’ll learn which country to call home.
More than 90,000 inhabitants of the camps that sprung up in 1992, built hastily to accommodate those who fled a major pogrom in Bhutan, have been resettled overseas. Some 27,000 remain. The deadline for resettlement applications passed on June 30, meaning that those who haven’t signed up – thought to be around 5,000 people – will remain in Nepal. Their fate remains unclear. UN funding for the camps may wind down over the coming two years, and the Nepal government still refuses to grant the refugees legal status.
“I feel sad having to leave my parents, but my father says he’s accepted my move,” says Dawa. “They [parents] are upset, but they’re adamant on returning to Bhutan.” The chances of that happening appear slim. In the late 1980s, the Bhutan government launched its “One Nation, One People Act", altering the definition of a Bhutanese citizen. That meant that people like Dawa – who despite being ethnic Nepalese had roots in Bhutan going back generations – were rendered stateless and expelled en masse.
Dawa says he remembers little of life in Bhutan. The dark, cramped hut in Sanischare camp that he and his parents share is the only home he’s known. Soon he’ll pack his belongings and take the next step in a resettlement program that began seven years ago, and which has seen the populations of the two remaining camps, Sanischare and Beldangi, gradually thin out. Rows of huts are now bereft of their inhabitants, and school classrooms stand empty. Seven years ago there were 8,600 students in the Sanischare camp, says the headmaster. Now only 1,085 remain.
How the refugees will adjust to life abroad is a persistent source of anxiety. The vast majority have resettled in the US, where the pace of life and alien culture stands in sharp contrast to what they have known for two decades – namely the close-knit community and limited movement that characterizes life in a refugee camp. The transition from the plains of southern Nepal to upstate New York or Pennsylvania, or wherever they end up, can have painful consequences.
A study in 2012 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found that 24.2 of every 100,000 Bhutanese that resettle in the US commit suicide – double that of the US average, and the highest among any refugee community in the US. One fifth suffer from depression.
The report logged the most common difficulties that refugees found when resettling, among them were language barriers, worries about family back home, separation from family, and difficulties in maintaining cultural and religious traditions. Whether these are properly understood by those in Nepal readying for resettlement is hard to tell.
“I don’t expect life to be luxurious there, but it’ll be better than here,” says Krishna Bahadur Bhujel, who will leave Beldangi camp shortly to join his children in the US. Before doing so, he will spend four days in an orientation session at a center run by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which facilitates the resettlement of around 60 people each week. The 44-year-old says he’s waited many years to return to Bhutan, but whatever hope he had has now faded. “After living here 22 years I haven’t earned anything,” he laments. “In the US I can do masonry or become a security guard. All my children are happy there.”
View photo essay on life in the Bhutanese refugee camps (photos by Francis Wade)
At the IOM center in Kathmandu, refugees are taught minutiae details about the journey to their new country and the first steps to take upon arrival. One room is set up like the inside of a plane, where they are taught how to operate the toilet or call for assistance from a steward. In another room they cluster in small groups, learning how to buy groceries at a modern supermarket. Cash registers, even refrigerators, are unfamiliar territory. Hygiene in the center is kept in very close check – should someone fall ill and be unable to board the plane, they face the prospect of being sent back to the camps and beginning the whole process again.
Dr Rajeev Lal, the head doctor at the center, says that among the various ailments that he sees among refugees, depression and anxiety are common. Compounding, and perhaps fueling, the problem is the rising rates of alcohol abuse in the camps. “It’s worsened in the past one to two years,” he says. “They’re dealing with separation from their families, and remittances have increased, meaning they have more money to spend but nothing to do apart from drink.”
Adding to existing concerns about how the transition will affect refugees is a new fear: what will happen to those left behind. Nini Gurung, from the UN’s refugee agency in Kathmandu, says that funding for refugees is decreasing worldwide at a time when crises elsewhere require resources to be diverted from the camps.
”We’re not sure how long it will last – we hope for the foreseeable future,” she says. Some refugees can work unofficially outside the camps, but movement is restricted. The Nepalese government continues to refuse the option of local integration. “What will unfold is unknown,” says Nini.
The resettlement program is, statistically speaking, a success story. The vast majority of the men, women and children who fled their homes in Bhutan in the early 1990s, scaling mountains and crossing rivers before making it to the Indian border and onto Nepal, have begun new lives in the US and elsewhere. But for many it is their second experience of being uprooted, and the gulf that separates them from their homeland widens even further.
Back in Nepal, the picture is similarly uncertain. With the potential for funding to wind down, options for the several thousand refugees who remain, resolute in their determination to return to Bhutan, narrow considerably. Unless things change they face the prospect of living out their lives in perpetual limbo, and spawning a new generation of stateless persons.