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Aviation Sans Frontières eases air journey for refugees from Bhutan


Aviation Sans Frontières eases air journey for refugees from Bhutan

Volunteers working for a France-based aviation charity act as escorts for refugees from Bhutan leaving Nepal and flying to third countries for resettlement.
22 July 2008
Refugees originating from Bhutan wait at Kathmandu airport for their flight to New Delhi en route to resettlement.

PARIS, France, July 22 (UNHCR) - The France-based Aviation Sans Frontières (ASF) charity is assisting in one of the biggest resettlement programmes in the world, but its staff will not be piloting repatriation flights but joining them as passengers.

The UN refugee agency is organizing the resettlement this year to countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark and Norway of an estimated 10,000 refugees in eastern Nepal who originate from Bhutan. Thousands more are expected to follow next year.

ASF received an overwhelming response when it issued a call recently for volunteers to physically escort groups of 30-35 of these refugees as they are taken by air from the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu to Brussels via New Delhi in India. The agency's website says it now has enough volunteer escorts for current needs.

"We have more than 350 candidates to accompany the refugees," said ASF President Jean-Claude Gérin. "Some people are going to be disappointed because not everyone will be able to take part in the programme, which is expected to last until 2012 for us."

Some 108,000 refugees originating from Bhutan live in seven camps in eastern Nepal. Some have been waiting for as long as 17 years for a chance to return home, but bilateral talks on repatriation to Bhutan have produced no results to date.

To help them out of this stalemate, the international community last year agreed to resettle those who wish to start afresh in another country. To date, at least 1,350 have departed for resettlement countries. More than 38,500 refugees have so far expressed interest in resettlement.

ASF has been helping the operation since June, when the agency's escorts first assisted refugees on their resettlement journey, said Gérin, who was on that flight. He described the typical routine.

The morning after their arrival in Kathmandu, volunteers chosen as ASF escorts are introduced to the party of up to 35 refugees they will be minding on the long journey to destinations in the United States. Once the introductions have been made, the whole party is whisked off to the airport.

Gérin said the logistical aspects of the journey were not a major problem, because all details were taken care of well in advance by UNHCR and its partner, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which arranges the flights.

"The most difficult thing our escorts have to deal with is the stress suffered by these refugees, who have left their friends, who are boarding an aircraft for the first time and who don't really know what to expect in their new homes," he said. ASF arranges for medical help if needed.

Gérin said that one of the striking things he noticed about the refugees when they were waiting to board their flight was that they had all bought new clothes so that they would be well dressed when they arrived in their country of resettlement. "When you look through their luggage, you see pots and pans, which they regard as their most precious possessions," he added.

On the flight from Kathmandu to the Indian capital of New Delhi - first leg of their journey - most of the refugee passengers are on a voyage of discovery. They marvel at the TV screens set in the backs of chairs and are bemused by the inflight meal. The ASF escorts do their best to explain this new world to them.

"You have to keep an eye on them all the time," noted Gérin, adding that the ASF volunteers also had to inform other passengers about the situation. During the long wait at Delhi for the connecting flight to Brussels, they have to make sure no one strays away or gets into trouble.

He said that the young refugees - especially those who spoke English and had never seen Bhutan - tended to be more excited during the journey, while their elders were concerned about what awaited them. Adults also worried about getting jobs and housing.

At Brussels airport, the ASF escorts part company with their charges. The refugees will head on to New York in the United States, before being transported to their final homes.

By Marie-Ange Lescure in Paris, France