Refugees from Bhutan poised for new start
DAMAK, Nepal, February 1 (UNHCR) - A new lease on life is within reach for thousands of refugees from Bhutan who have been living in Nepal's camps for nearly two decades. Within months, the first groups could start their lives in other countries, thanks to a recent decision enabling them to leave for resettlement.
The breakthrough occurred in mid-January, when the Nepalese government agreed to issue exit permits to refugees accepted for group resettlement to third countries. This decision paves the way for the large-scale movement of refugees who decide voluntarily to be resettled after spending up to 17 years in Nepal's camps.
The refugees first arrived in Nepal after fleeing ethnic tensions in Bhutan in the early 1990s. There are more than 107,000 refugees living in seven camps in eastern Nepal today.
Recognizing their desperate situation, the US has said it will consider at least 60,000 refugees for resettlement and Canada has indicated it will accept up to 5,000. Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway have indicated their willingness to accept refugees from Bhutan for resettlement.
"We are very thankful to the Nepalese government for the exit permits," said Daisy Dell, the UN refugee agency's representative in Kathmandu. "Resettlement offers a way out for thousands of refugees who see no future in the camps. At the same time, we continue to advocate for voluntary repatriation for those who wish to do so."
The resettlement process is a long one. Last November, UNHCR started a mass information campaign on durable solutions throughout the camps. Since then, it has interviewed thousands of interested refugees and submitted the names of nearly 10,000 individuals to several countries.
Further interviews are being conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and officials from the resettlement countries. Once accepted, the refugees undergo extensive medical screenings and cultural orientation to prepare them for their new life abroad.
The first refugee families are scheduled to leave in March, and numbers are expected to increase by July.
In the meantime, the camps are buzzing with discussions. "Resettlement is a very hot topic now. Everyone is talking about it - in school, in the markets," said Ganga,* a 21-year-old refugee in Goldhap camp. "We are in a dilemma. Our future here is uncertain. If there are good conditions in Bhutan, we will go back. But time is not favouring us."
Ganga is the eldest of seven children. Her father died a few years ago and her mother works on tea estates outside the camp for 70 rupees (US$1.10) a day. All the children are well educated and eager to help ease the family burden.
"If there is somewhere better than here, we will go," said Ganga. "I hope we can get some skills training in tailoring or [beauty] parlour before we go to a third country. If we have the opportunity, I believe we'll do well."
The older generation, however, feels differently. "At this moment, we are not thinking about resettlement at all. We're only thinking of going back to our land in Bhutan," said Birkabahadul Gurung, 72, who heads a family of 26 refugees in Goldhap camp. "The discussion inside our family is very friendly - I make the decisions and they accept."
Tensions have increased over opposing views in the camps, with unknown groups threatening some refugees in favour of resettlement. The local authorities have boosted security by deploying 25 police officers in each camp, creating an environment where the refugees can be free to make informed decisions.
For Ganga and her family, the waiting game continues. What's a few more months of caution compared to the 17 years in exile, she seemed to say as she shrugged: "Let the others go first, then we'll see."
* Name changed for protection reasons
By Vivian Tan in Damak, Nepal