Bhutanese refugees: forgotten generations see small glimmer of hope

“I was forced to be a refugee when I was a fetus in my mother’s womb,” lamented sixteen year old Indra Acharya. “It is very sad to be forced to be a refugee before your birth.”

Indra was born and has lived all his life in one of the seven refugee camps in Nepal’s south eastern Terai districts of Jhapa and Morang. Like tens of thousands of other Bhutanese of Nepali ancestry, Indra’s family was expelled from Bhutan in the early 1990’s and became refugees in Nepal.

A life in limbo

For almost two decades, the Bhutanese refugees have been living in Nepal, waiting for a resolution of the crisis that forced them to flee. Sixteen failed bilateral discussions between the Governments of Bhutan and Nepal have meant that generations have been lost with nowhere to go and little to look forward to in the future.

“The young generation is becoming increasingly frustrated because they want jobs and educational opportunities,” said Menuka Nepal, the volunteer camp secretary, “The youth do not want to be confined to the camps longer than is necessary.”

The over 100,000 displaced Bhutanese have no legal access to land or jobs in their host country, Nepal. With no means of cultivating food and limited opportunities for economic alternatives for self sufficiency, the refugees have been entirely dependent on international aid organizations for their survival.

Camp life

In spite of their uncertain future, many who live in the camps have volunteered their time and skills to better the lives of their communities. Chandra Maya Khatiwada is thirty five years old and has lived almost half of her life as a refugee. She lives with her husband, teenage son and parents in a simple bamboo hut in one of the refugee camps.

One week after her arrival in the camps in Nepal, the nineteen year old Chandra Maya volunteered her medical services in the refugee camps. Between 1993 and 2003, Chandra Maya helped more than five hundred babies into this world. For fifteen years, Chandra Maya has waited for the chance to go back home to Bhutan, but with little hope.

New horizons for some

After years, the forgotten Bhutanese refugees saw the possibility of a chance for the future. The United States, Netherlands, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Denmark have offered to resettle nearly 90,000 refugees. Together with her family, Chandra Maya has signed up for resettlement in the United States and is looking forward to a new beginning. However, only half of the refugees have enrolled their interest for a third country resettlement; with some hankering for the chance of repatriation and others wishing to stay in Nepal.

Chandra Bir Thapa is 71 years old and spends much of his time in the camp’s Elderly People’s Recreation Centre, where the refugee men gather daily to read newspapers sing, pray, discuss and keep the memories of Bhutan alive. Chandra Bir’s dream is to be able to return to Bhutan one day. “I will not restrict my other family members [to resettle]; either I will go back to Bhutan – if people are taken back with dignity and respect – or I will stay in Nepal.” He said. “I am too old and my memory is fading, what will I do in a third country without understanding the language there?”

Whatever choices the refugees now have, the solutions have been slow in coming and humanitarian assistance alone will not help without real political will to solve the plight of already lost generations.

Long term assistance

The European Commission has been assisting the refugees for the last seven years, through the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), with almost €26 million for food aid and camp management. The humanitarian assistance has made a practical difference to the refugees’ lives; food, shelter, access to water, health services, education and vocational training, but they remain confined and stateless.

Malini Morzaria
Regional Information Officer
Autumn 2008


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Filed under Bencana Manusia, Humanitarian, Refugee

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