Nepal: Bhutanese refugees find new life beyond the camps

News and Press Release
Originally published
KATHMANDU, 10 November 2008 (IRIN) - Thousands of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal have been successfully resettled in seven countries, including the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Canada, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

The refugees are Bhutanese citizens of Nepalese origin, known as Lhotsampas in Bhutan. For the past 17 years, nearly 106,000 refugees have been sheltered in seven camps in eastern Nepal since their eviction from their homes by the Bhutanese government, which introduced a law stripping them of their citizenship and civil rights because of their ancestry.

After several years of failed bilateral talks between the Nepalese and Bhutanese governments to repatriate them, the refugees are now opting for third-country resettlement with the help of UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Since March 2008, 6,200 Bhutanese refugees have been resettled and more are in the process of leaving the camps every week, said UNHCR officials in Nepal.

UNHCR said the USA had offered to resettle 60,000-plus refugees from Bhutan over the next five years, with another 10,000 hosted by the other countries listed.

Norway, which has a quota of barely 1,000 immigrants from all over the world, has provided settlement for nearly 200 Bhutanese refugees, according to the Bhutanese Refugee Rights Coordinating Committee (RRCC).

New beginning

"After so many years of suffering and leading miserable lives as refugees, they now have a chance to live in dignity," Ashok Gurung, senior member of the RRCC, told IRIN in the capital, Kathmandu.

Gurung, himself a refugee, explained that refugees had now been happily living in host countries.

"I have a strong degree of respect for the courage it must take for refugees to make the decision to resettle and begin their new lives upon resettlement," Daisy Dell, the UNHCR representative in Nepal, told IRIN.

She added that the resettlement process was a huge cultural and social adjustment for refugees who have been living in harsh camp conditions for nearly two decades.

The resettled refugees are adjusting to their new environment and have found jobs that pay as a high US$8 per hour working on farms, in hotels and other jobs, according to RRCC.

"They have to struggle initially and have to start from scratch as most are not highly educated," said Gurung. "It's the children who benefit the most." He added that local charity agencies and Christian missionary organisations were helping to sponsor or find financial support to enrol the children in school.


"It's amazing," Dell told IRIN. "We recently surpassed 6,000 departures in less than 10 months." She explained that UNHCR had been working towards a comprehensive solution for the Bhutanese refugees for the past 17 years. "During that time our office has faced many challenges both in terms of refugee protection and camp-management issues and the larger political and security situation in Nepal," said Dell.

The agency has met resistance from some groups of refugees who have been advocating for repatriation to Bhutan and protesting against third-country resettlement.

According to some refugees, there are 13 different armed groups still opting for repatriation and the Nepal government has stepped up security with the help of armed police in the refugee camps. UNHCR's position is that resettlement is an individual choice.

"Without the support of the refugee community, the government of Nepal and the international community, the possibility of resettlement for some 100,000 refugees from Bhutan would not have become a reality," added Dell.