For 15 years the Jhapa and Morang districts have been hosting the Bhutanese refugees who now number some 105,000 people in seven camps in the "terai" or plains area in a rural part of the country, some 7-45 km from the Indian border. The frustration of the refugees at the lack of solution to their protracted plight is mirrored to a certain extent by the local communities, who wonder if the refugees will ever return to Bhutan.
"Lately the tensions between the refugees and the local communities have been increasing for various reasons, including the fact that refugees are collecting fallen trees, dried leaves and twigs from the local forests," said Milagros Leynes, who heads UNHCR's sub-office in Damak. "When there is a delay in the delivery of kerosene, the refugees - mostly women and children - have no option but to go to the nearby forests to gather firewood for cooking at the risk of being attacked, including possible sexual assault."
Deliveries of kerosene - cooking fuel for the refugees - have sometimes been delayed due to "bandhs" or blockades imposed by Maoist insurgents, bringing all traffic and commercial activity to a grinding halt throughout the district. Generally, however, the Maoists fully understand and appreciate UNHCR's humanitarian operation, and deliveries of supplies to the camps are allowed to proceed.
The locals complain that refugees working informally as low wage labourers are driving prices down and polluting the environment by throwing garbage into the river used for irrigating crops. They are also slightly envious of the high standard of education and health care the refugees get in the camps in comparison to locally available services.
"It is really important for UNHCR to have harmonious relations with the local communities who have been so generously hosting the refugees for all these years," UNHCR's Representative in Nepal, Abraham Abraham, told local dignitaries in Damak last week as he handed over the keys of two garbage trucks the refugee agency was donating to the local community.
"We certainly hope that this will help in reducing the tensions between the local communities and the refugees, and help with solid waste management," he added.
Thanking UNHCR for the trucks, Damak municipality's Executive Officer, Durga Nath Gautam, said, "A large number of refugees live in this municipality, and since this municipality is also backward, we will be needing a lot more support from UNHCR."
After waiting a year for the formalities to be completed for the truck's re-registration from UNHCR to the municipality, Damak municipality plans to have the garbage trucks in action within a week.
Since the refugee operation started in Nepal, UNHCR has been working with the Nepalese government on small-scale projects such as forest rehabilitation, road and bridge building to help alleviate the social and economic impact of the refugees on local communities.
In addition, Nepalese in refugee-hosting areas are given free access to the health services in all the refugee camps. During monsoon season, patients from local villages even cross flooded rivers to get to Khudunabari refugee camp's health post for medical treatment.
"An average of 400-500 locals come to the health centre in a month," said the camp community health assistant, a refugee trained by the Association of Medical Doctors of Asia (AMDA-Nepal), the organisation that provides the health care services. "The patients suffer from common seasonal ailments like viral fever, diarrhoea, cold and cough, as well as cases of mental illness and hypertension."
"We never refuse treatment for the local population who come to our health centre," he added, as a pregnant woman from the local village arrived at the centre for her monthly check-up. All the camps have 24-hour emergency ambulance services for both refugees and locals.
Despite tensions between the locals and refugees, relations are generally good.
"Compared to other refugee camps, refugees in Beldangi II and Beldangi Extension have good relation with the locals," said the camp's school headmaster as he sipped a glass of sweet, milky tea in a thatch-roofed open-sided canteen in Beldangi I refugee camp.
J.B. Gautam, a farmer who lives in the local village near the Beldangi II and Beldangi Extension refugee camps, agreed, "We have good relations with the refugees. The only problem is that after they came here there has been a lot of environmental pollution." He came to the village when the Beldangi refugee camps were first established and said that now he has some good refugee friends.
This year, UNHCR has also helped tarmac the road from Beldangi refugee camps into Damak, mainly due to respiratory problems suffered by children living in the area.
"Earlier during monsoon times, it was difficult for us to walk around as there was no proper road," said a man from the adjoining village. "Now in an emergency, we can reach Damak town in just 10-15 minutes."
Most of the locals want to know more about what UNHCR is doing to solve the refugee situation while also wondering why the refugee agency could not also assist them. As one villager remarked, "I hope there is early solution to the refugee problem so that all the refugees can go home soon."
By Nini Gurung
In Damak, eastern Nepal