– Nearly half of the roughly 108,000 Bhutanese of Nepalese origin who fled to Nepal in the early 1990s have been resettled in third countries, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the seven camps they were living in are in the process of being consolidated into two.
Since late 2007, when a third-country resettlement programme was introduced, UNHCR has resettled 50,996 of the refugees, also known as Lhotsampas; 43,056 have been resettled in the USA alone. They fled Bhutan after the government stripped them of citizenship.
Due to a reduction in donor funds and to provide services more efficiently to the dwindling number of refugees, the Nepalese government and UNHCR have begun merging the camps into two – Beldangi in Jhapa District and Sanischare in Morang District. The plan is to complete the process by mid-2012.
“Refugees don’t necessarily feel comfortable losing half of the community, so it makes no sense to do business as usual,” Stephane Jaquemet, UNHCR country representative in Kathmandu, told IRIN.
Camps Beldangi I, Beldangi II, and Beldangi II Extension merged into Beldangi camp in January 2011, centralizing food distribution, health care and education.
The 4,600 refugees at Goldhap camp in eastern Jhapa, which closed in June 2011, were initially reluctant to leave, but after a fire in March which destroyed nearly 75 percent of the bamboo huts, they were left with no choice.
Government to merge Bhutanese refugee camps
Repatriation or resettlement for Bhutanese refugees? “At first, some of us had disagreements with relocation. The larger camps are more crowded and chaotic and more prone to crime,” Chiranjibi Rai, former camp secretary at Goldhap and a refugee now at the new Beldangi camp, said. “After our camp caught fire, there was too much dust and pollution. It was then that we demanded to move.”
The fire prompted UNHCR to move 678 families to the larger camps. Most families relocated to Beldangi, where some found themselves in unfinished, roofless huts.
Ten families, including Tal Man Rana and his wife and daughter, asked to be moved to Sanischare where their relatives live.
“Everything went smoothly during the transition,” Man Rana said. “Any complaints we had were temporary. If you talk about health, education, and infrastructure, we are totally dependent on what they give us. So wherever they take us, we have to go. And we accept this.”
There are currently four fully operating camps: Beldangi, Timai, Khudunabari and Sanischare. Timai is scheduled to close by the end of the year, and Khudunabari by June 2012.
Although camp consolidation is progressing, the fate of the remaining 63,093 refugees is uncertain.
Bhutanese refugees pass time in Sanischare camp Cases of fraud, non-registration, and marriages between refugees and local Nepalis have delayed applications for third-country resettlement. (The Damak authorities recently arrested a Nepali woman who allegedly promised clients passage to Western countries by registering them as Bhutanese refugees.)
While many refugee families wait to resettle, 15,000 have yet to express any interest in third-country resettlement. Refugees like Ghanashyam Lamgade are still optimistic of returning to Bhutan.
Lamgade has served the Beldangi community as a tailor for the past 10 years and has no intention of applying for third-country resettlement.
“I am Bhutanese. I belong to Bhutan. Until Bhutan makes the decision on repatriation, I will wait. And if ever Bhutan decides not to take us back then only at that time may I consider other options,” Lamgade said. He said members of his community were still in Bhutan and that resettling elsewhere would be a “great defeat”.
UNHCR hopes that as the number of refugees falls, Bhutan may be inclined to allow the remaining refugees to return.
“It is difficult to make a proper scenario at this moment, because the prospect of repatriation is still there. Not today with 63,000 [refugees], but with the number going down, we hope that it may help,” Jaquemet said.