Liam Cochrane | Bio | 22 May 2007
World Politics Review Exclusive
KATMANDU, Nepal -- Tucked away in the forests of eastern Nepal, acres of neatly organized bamboo huts accommodate the victims of one of the world's most intractable refugee situations. For 16 years, tens of thousands of Bhutanese refugees have languished in seven overcrowded camps, relying on international aid for food and shelter, and slowly losing hope.
Today, many are pinning the last of those fading hopes on an offer from the United States to resettle 60,000 people. But the offer has also caused a schism amongst the refugees. While many see this as the only viable option to move on with their lives, a bullying minority insist that repatriation should be the only option.
"If you speak of resettlement, your head will be in a bag and your body will be at the side of the river," was the message hand-delivered to two camp secretaries who were in favor of the U.S. offer, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch.
The HRW report documents the deteriorating conditions and rising tensions in the camps and also gives a few rare glimpses into the current human rights situation within the isolated kingdom of Bhutan.
The discrimination which continues in Bhutan today, according to HRW, has its roots in the same "ethnic cleansing" which resulted in the thousands of refugees being stranded in Nepal.
During the 1980s, the Dzongkha-speaking Buddhists who rule Bhutan began to fear the growing influence of the Nepali-speaking Hindus in the south. The government tightened citizenship laws and used those laws -- combined with arrests, torture and threats -- to force ethnic-Nepali Bhutanese citizens out of the country.
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Neighboring India wanted nothing to do with the refugees and transported them to Nepal, where they have remained ever since. There are now 106,000 people living in seven camps -- roughly a sixth of the current population of Bhutan.
Fifteen rounds of negotiations between the governments of Bhutan and Nepal have come to nothing and the despair of prolonged statelessness has begun to show itself in ugly forms. Domestic violence is on the rise and frustrated young men are increasingly keen on beginning an armed Maoist struggle in Bhutan, says HRW.
Adding to the hardship, international donors are growing weary of supporting the refugees and have cut food rations, reduced the amount of plastic sheeting given to repair hut roofs and switched from clean-burning kerosene cooking oil to smoky briquettes.
"The life in the camps is miserable," said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director for HRW and a researcher for their latest report. "These are closed camps, people are not allowed to work in Nepal, they can look out and see farms that Nepali farmers in the surrounding areas are farming but they don't have that right themselves."
With mounting hardships and no sign of change from Bhutan, many are considering the U.S. offer favorably. There is also interest from other nations -- such as Australia, Canada and Norway -- to accept a small number of refugees. While the application process for resettlement hasn't yet started, the U.S. embassy has received thousands of spontaneous appeals from refugees.
"In these circumstances, the only feasible option is resettlement," said Ashok Gurung, a 29-year old student who left behind parents and two siblings when he fled in 1992.
But voicing that opinion in the camps can be dangerous, especially for refugee leaders.
"We campaign for all three options [repatriation, resettlement and local integration] but they say we are only for resettlement," camp secretary Hari Adhikari Bangaley told HRW. "There are demonstrations against. They burn effigies of us. They have damaged my motorbike. They have surrounded me. They have threatened to cut my throat."
The HRW report said some of the strongest opposition to resettlement came from refugee leaders who live in Nepal's capital of Katmandu, outside the daily grind of life in the camps. The report singles out Tek Nath Rizal, who was a member of Bhutan's Royal Advisory Council before falling out of favor and being imprisoned in 1989. He gained "an almost mythical status" while in prison and became the de facto spokesman for the movement when he was released a decade later.
From the relative comfort of his Katmandu home, Rizal strongly advocated repatriation as the only solution, despite the slim chance of this happening anytime soon. Last year, when six of the seven camp secretaries organized a press conference to welcome the U.S. resettlement offer, Rizal promptly dismissed them from one of the numerous committees he chairs.
In a more recent interview with WPR, Rizal's stance had softened and he now says every refugee has the right to decide for themselves whether they pursue a third country option.
But if the Katmandu-based leaders are mellowing, at least publicly, the militants in the camps are not. Thousands of frustrated young men provide easy fodder for the Communist Party of Bhutan (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist), which has held "cultural programs" urging refugees to fight for their right to return and holding marches with wooden rifles.
"It is important that durable solutions come soon, because youths especially are frustrated and are joining radical groups," a representative of an international human rights organization working in the camps told HRW. "They also see the example of the Nepalese Maoists. They want to do radical activities in Nepal as well as Bhutan."
While Nepal's Maoists support the ideology of their Bhutanese comrades, officially there are no financial or military links. To date, the overt activities of the Maoists have been limited, but their presence instills fear amongst other refugees in the camps, who feel afraid to publicly support third-country resettlement.
For now, however, resettlement appears to be the only durable option, given the lack of interest from Nepal regarding local integration and the ongoing campaign against ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan.
Human Rights Watch says much of the discrimination involves using administrative tools and fear.
Interviews with Bhutanese suggested that police are routinely denying ethnic Nepalis the crucial "no objection certificates" they need to study, trade, own land and sell crops. These certificates are meant to confirm that the recipient is not involved in "anti-national activity" but in reality are used to punish those who speak out against the regime.
Even those with relatives in the refugee camps are refused NOC documents, making many Bhutanese terrified of being caught contacting family stranded in Nepal.
Ashok Gurung has been in and out of contact with his family since he fled Bhutan in 1992. Three months ago, he was told his parents had moved to Thimphu to escape forced labor schemes, which demanded up to three days unpaid work a week.
"I heard that my parents are internal refugees working in the capital," said Gurung, whose teenage protests against the government resulted in his father being imprisoned, but later released.
Almost every Bhutanese refugee wants firstly to return to their homeland, but a new generation of activists sees resettlement in the United States as another way to achieve that goal.
Resettlement will in no way surrender their "right to return" to Bhutan under international law and may even give this articulate community of forgotten people a greater chance of being heard.
Ashok Gurung: "We believe that pressurizing the government of Bhutan [while] living in the eastern camps of Jhapa [Nepal], will not be as forceful as what we shout from the international levels."
Liam Cochrane is a freelance journalist based in Katmandu.