"We are like dead people," said 47-year-old Bhutanese refugee Hari* in Beldangi camp as he flicked a counter across a red talcum-dusted board in the popular sub-continental game, Carrom Board. Gathered around him under the thatch-roofed shelter were inquisitive children clutching school exercise books.
"It's killing time only. All the time staying here, killing time. Our lives are doomed. We cannot go ahead with developing our future," he added, pointing to the children who were being educated in the camp but had little chance of ever using their skills.
After 14 years without a single refugee returning to Bhutan, tensions and frustrations are growing in the seven UNHCR-run refugee camps in eastern Nepal, which like many rural areas of the country, is affected by a Maoist insurgency.
Since 1993, the Nepalese and Bhutanese governments have been unsuccessfully negotiating repatriation on a bilateral basis. UNHCR has been excluded from the process, but the refugee agency has continually advocated for a long-lasting solution.
"We can't keep them eternally in the camps. It's inhuman and criminal to leave them there and it's incumbent on all parties to put an end to this protracted situation," said UNHCR's Representative in Nepal, Abraham Abraham.
"The problem has become political and has shifted from being a humanitarian problem, so there's a need for a strong political solution," he added.
Until recently, most refugees had refused to consider any option other than repatriation to Bhutan, which they fled in the early 1990s after the enforcement of a 1985 Citizenship Act made life intolerable for people of Nepalese ethnicity. But, disillusioned after the failure to start any repatriation despite an October 2003 agreement on all but the modalities and conditions of return, the refugees are now coming around to seriously considering the other internationally accepted solutions of local integration and resettlement. This would need the agreement of the Nepalese government.
"We want to go back to Bhutan, but we have come to the conclusion that it's impossible to think we can all go back. Different people have different ideas, but my thinking is we cannot stay so long here," said Hari. "We ask UNHCR as our parents and the help of the Nepalese government to find a lasting solution to resettle in Nepal or another country," he said, expressing the views of a growing number of refugees and some refugee political leaders.
Recently, resettlement countries have given UNHCR strong expressions of support that they would be ready to resettle within the framework of a solution package, as no single solution can be fully applied.
"A return of refugees to Bhutan would be a first step towards achieving a comprehensive solution," said Abraham, adding that India, with its strong regional role and good relations with both Bhutan and Nepal, could potentially play an important part in brokering a solution.
Nepal has consistently said the refugees should be repatriated, although they are of Nepalese culture, ethnicity and language. But after 14 years of living in Nepal, some refugees have married local Nepalese and established strong family ties. For them, return to Bhutan or resettlement is not an option they would wish for.
Formally, the refugees are not allowed to work. But in order to supplement their daily needs, they go out and find small jobs in the local informal sector.
"The government is tolerant about this and understands they need to occupy themselves in a productive manner," said Abraham, noting that from time to time, this can cause tensions with the local population.
What is most prized by the local community are the educated refugees. The Bhutanese refugees receive a higher standard of education than provided by the local schools. As a result, refugee graduates are in demand as teachers locally.
"The refugees want to sell their skills but there is no market [in the camps]. We are making a policy on these skills so that they should be used outside. Their skills should be exported outside, into the schools," a senior district government official told UNHCR on Monday.
Many refugee school children were born in Nepal and only know about Bhutan from their parents. Still, many believe they will one day return, and have strong ideas about their future careers.
"Most of the students have high hopes that they will go back to the home state where they can use their studies. They are fully optimistic," said a teacher in Khundunabari camp, home to some 12,200 refugees.
"I want to be a doctor," said a 12-year-old refugee school girl, sheltering from a monsoon downpour under the thatched school veranda while taking a 20-minute break between term exams.
"They want to be doctors, then teachers, after that, chartered accountants," said the teacher.
''My first aim is to go back home to Bhutan and then I want to become a social worker," said one boy as he settled down for his science exam.
But, UNHCR staff and Bhutanese refugees say that once students have finished school, the problems start, because they can't formally work, and can't see a future for themselves.
Currently, the Maoist insurgency has no direct adverse affect on the refugee situation.
"But it could influence youths in the camps who are getting frustrated and are idle. This prolonged stay in the camps could lead to militancy and security implications within Nepal and beyond its borders in the region," warned Abraham.
A concerted effort by the international community, particularly by Nepal and Bhutan, is needed to bring to an end this appallingly protracted situation, said the UNHCR Representative.
"How long are we going to stay like this," said Hari in frustration. "See the children. What about their future?" he asked, as he set up the pieces on the board for another round of Carrom. Killing more time, waiting for a solution and a future.
* Name changed
By Jennifer Pagonis in Damak