Nepal

Nepal: Food aid for Bhutanese refugees in jeopardy

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DAMAK, 8 May 2007 (IRIN) - Food assistance for over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, one of the most protracted refugee situations in Asia, is now under threat unless donor assistance is forthcoming soon.

According to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), US $5 million is needed to secure food supplies for the refugees for 2007.

"If we don't get contributions by August we will need to start cutting rations in September until new contributions come in," Dominique Isabelle Hyde, deputy country director of WFP, told IRIN in the town of Damak in Nepal's southeastern Jhupa district. She said it generally takes six to eight weeks to transform a cash contribution into food in beneficiaries' mouths.

Such news spells disaster for Tanka Bahadur Katwal and his family who have been living in the Beldangi II extension camp, one of seven Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal, for the past 15 years.

"We lost our homes and everything we own," the father-of-three said, adding: "This is the only thing that keeps our family alive."

As refugees in the country since the early 1990s, the 42-year-old and other Bhutanese refugees like him are not allowed to work legally outside their camps or own land - making them largely dependent on rations of rice, pulses, sugar, salt and vegetable oil every two weeks.

WFP aid since 1992

WFP has been providing food aid to the Bhutanese refugee camps with since 1992. As a result, the nutritional status of the refugees is significantly better than the national average for Nepal.

Each month over 108,000 refugees require food aid, including approximately 3,000 pregnant and lactating women, young children and elderly people.

"Any decrease would result in serious hardship for my family and many others in my community," Katwal said, adding: "We would like to see the rations increased".

However, that looks unlikely, given what many view as donor fatigue, coupled with a now stronger focus on the peace process in the country following a decade-long conflict between government forces and Maoist rebels in which 13,000 people died.

"The refugees are dependent on the humanitarian assistance provided by the international community - and food is the most basic and vital element," Kaoru Nemoto, head of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office in Damak, said. "These people have already been pushed to the limit," she added, noting earlier instances in which non-food related rations had been cut in the past.

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