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The other election: Bhutanese refugees in Nepal vote to elect their camp management representatives

The other election: Bhutanese refugees in Nepal vote to elect their camp management representatives

As Nepal waits for a decision on elections for a Constituent Assembly, thousands of refugees from Bhutan who live in several camps spread across the south east of the country have been holding elections of their own. For the first time, candidates for the annual election of refugee camp representatives included equal numbers of women and men.
5 May 2006
Bhutanese refugees in Nepal held elections this week for their camp representatives, casting ballot papers in containers usually used to store drinking water.

DAMAK, Nepal, May 5 (UNHCR) - As Nepal waits for a decision on elections for a Constituent Assembly, another group has held its own, peaceful vote to elect its representatives. Starting last Tuesday, Bhutanese refugees in Nepal cast their ballots to elect representatives for camp management.

There was a festive mood as over the course of three days - from May 2-4 - refugees lined up to vote for the person they believed should represent them in dealing with the host community, the government of Nepal, UNHCR and its partners.

To make sure that everyone voted for the person of their choice, names of the candidates were listed on coloured chart paper and posted in each of the bamboo and thatch voting centres. The centres were built in several locations in each of the camps, which are home to over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in the south east of the country. Voters wrote the number or the name of the candidate and dropped their ballot in a traditional water storage container.

Since the establishment of the camps in 1992, elections have become an annual event. Refugees eagerly looked forward to election day and the opportunity to exercise their democratic right to vote - even though it was in a refugee camp far from their homeland.

To standardise refugee elections in Nepal, an electoral panel is formed each year. It is headed by the government authority and includes UNHCR, the World Food Programme, non-governmental organisations and refugee representatives. The elections are conducted according to set guidelines which allow one male and one female member of each household in the camp over 18 years of age to vote. Those elected as representatives form a committee, called the Camp Management Committee, which acts on behalf of the camp residents to liaise with the relevant authorities and agencies and to coordinate the day-to-day management of the camps.

"We want refugees to fully exercise their right to elect their representatives, and the role of UNHCR is to assist the process," said UNHCR Representative in Nepal Abraham Abraham.

"Bhutanese refugees are very democratic and have always appreciated the electoral mechanism for representing themselves," added Abraham.

Campaigning was done throughout the weeks of April, with the candidates holding rallies in the camps and going from hut to hut to discuss their individual qualifications to represent the refugees.

Young people in the camp were also involved in the process of ensuring that efficient and trustworthy people were elected. They got candidates to fill in a questionnaire in which they had to explain, among other things how they planned, should they win, to achieve a permanent and lasting solution for their fellow Bhutanese refugees.

"Youth is power and we want to fully support the representatives in their plans for the betterment of the conditions in the camps and for achieving lasting solutions to our plight," said Bhim Subedi, a student from Beldangi I refugee camp.

In the run-up to the elections, UNHCR worked to get more women involved in the process to ensure good diversity among the candidates. This resulted in just over 50 per cent female candidates standing in the elections, the first time that women have been equally represented as candidates for the Camp Management Committees.

"A noteworthy development concerning women's participation in the elections were the changes made in the Camp Management Committee Election Guidelines in 2005," Abraham said. "These included the formation of core groups in the camps comprising both men and women who work camp-wide to increase the representation and support of women in taking up leadership roles."

In most of the camps, men won the head of the committee or the camp secretary posts. But, after a long gap of several years, this time a female candidate won the elections as camp secretary in one of the camps.

Women in the camp were pleased at being better represented. "It is always easier to relate with female representatives as they understand our problems and issues better," said one female voter.

"The increased and active participation of women in the elections is highly encouraging," said Abraham. "To have more participation of women in the decision-making process is one of our prime objectives and fully consistent with UNHCR's policy for achieving gender equality in all aspects of our work."

By Nini Gurung in Damak, Nepal