Number of refugees from Bhutan resettled from Nepal passes 20,000 mark

News Stories, 8 September 2009

© UNHCR Nepal
Sita (left) and her family at the IOM transit centre in Kathmandu.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, September 8 (UNHCR) Eight-year-old Sita Budhathoki this week became the 20,000th refugee from Bhutan to leave Nepal for a new life in a third country, under one of UNHCR's largest resettlement programmes.

The child flew out of Kathmandu with her parents and siblings on Monday en route for the United States city of Des Moines in Iowa. They joined more than 17,600 other refugees originating from Bhutan who have left Nepal to start new lives in the US since the resettlement programme began in November 2007.

Other refugees have left the seven refugee camps in eastern Nepal for Australia, Canada, Norway, New Zealand, Denmark and the Netherlands. They had come to Nepal from Bhutan in the early 1990s, fleeing ethnic tensions.

Sita had mixed feelings about leaving Nepal. "I am happy, but at the same time sad as I had to leave all my friends in the school. I am the first one from my class to leave and I want some of my friends to join me in my new country if not all," she said.

Her father, Krishna Bahadur Budhathoki, was optimistic about the future after 17 years in Nepal. "I chose resettlement for [the sake of] my three children I don't want them to spend their life in a camp," he said, adding: "I want a good education for them and a better future."

The family was brought to Kathmandu from Beldangi II camp on a plane chartered by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). They were given a medical examination and took part in a brief orientation course at a transit centre in the Nepalese capital.

In Nepal's camps, UNHCR provides information to refugees about resettlement and other options, so they can make an informed decision about their future. The agency organizes regular information sessions, focus groups and individual counselling. Special information programmes are organized for marginalized and vulnerable refugees. Refugees are also offered English-language classes and vocational and skills training.

Sita's grandparents and aunt are already in Iowa; they left Nepal for resettlement in February this year. "All these months I was in touch with them by phone and have heard many positive things about the United States," Krishna said, adding that his sister had found a job. He said his priority in the US would be to learn English so that he could also find work.

At the start of the resettlement programme, the US said it would accept at least 60,000 refugees from Nepal. More than 17,000 have gone to states such as Arizona, New York, Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Texas, while about 91,000 are still in Nepal.

"We are grateful to the resettlement countries for giving the refugees a chance to start their lives afresh in a new country," said Diane Goodman, UNHCR acting representative in Nepal. "We are equally thankful to the government of Nepal, which has generously hosted the refugees for so many years," she added.

More than 78,000 refugees have expressed an interest in resettlement so far, and a further 5,000 are expected to leave Nepal for third countries by the end of the year. UNHCR continues to advocate for the option of voluntary return to Bhutan for those refugees who wish to do so.

By Nini Gurung in Kathmandu, Nepal