The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Friday, July 6, 2018

Huddled masses yearning to rejoin families


THE LONG WAIT: Ranmaya Chamling and her husband.
Even in the refugee camps for people from Bhutan here in eastern Nepal,this week's Tij festival was a time of singing, dancing, feasting, and fasting. But 52-year-old Ranmaya Chamling has never felt as lonely as she did during this year's festival.
She and her husband Tek Bahadur are the only ones from their 20-member family still remaining in the Sanischare Camp in Jhapa. The others left for Toronto earlier this year under an international program to resettle refugees in the United States, Canada, UK, Norway, Netherlands, New Zealand, Denmark, and Australia.
However, Canada and the UK recently announced they would not be taking any more refugees, and this has worried families like the Chamlings who fear they will be resettled elsewhere and be separated from their children.
"This Tij was unbearable", Ranamaya said, "first of all because the family is now far away, and also because we are afraid we may not be able to live close to them when we are resettled".

MOVING PEOPLE AROUND When Bhutan evicted 100,000 of its Lhotsampa population in the early 1990s, the refugees were settled in camps in eastern Nepal. After deadlocked negotiations on repatriation, eight countries agreed in 2008 to take in the Bhutan citizens. So far, more than 71,000 refugees have been resettled, and there are another 35,000 to go.
Ranmaya and Tek have filled out forms for resettlement in Canada, but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Migration Organisation (IMO) that are administering the resettlement say, there is no guarantee that the families will be together. Teams from Canada and the UK are visiting the camps next month to assess the remaining applicants, but UNHCR says it can't be sure whether the humanitarian need to keep families united will be heeded.

Tek Bahadur, fear they will not be resettled close to their children in Canada, as do Phulmaya Magar, her husband Lal Bahadur, and sons Buddha and Subhas .
For Ranmaya this uncertainty is agonising. She says: "It is even worse than when we risked our lives to flee from Bhutan 20 years ago". Bhutan evicted 100,000 of its people, one-sixth of its total population, in 1990-92 as part of a ethno-centric campaign against its Nepali-speaking citizens. That population has now grown to 120,000 with a whole new generation of refugee children born in the camps in Jhapa and Morang.
After years of fruitless talks between Nepal and Bhutan about repatriating the refugees, in 2008 the international community decided to start third-country resettlement. So far, 71,000 refugees have left, nearly 90 per cent of them for the United States. Of the 35,000 who are still waiting for resettlement, some may not be sent to the same country their families have gone to. As the refugee numbers shrink, the seven camps have been collapsed into four.

The Chamlings and Magars have lived along this lane in the Sanischare Refugee Camp in Jhapa ever since they were evicted from Bhutan 20 years ago.
Phulmaya and Lal Bahadur Magar are also alone in their bamboo hut, after two of their sons and grandchildren left for Quebec last year. Two more sons of the couple are still left in Jhapa, but now don't know whether they can also go to Canada or not. Says Phulmaya: "We can't wait for the whole family to be reunited again, but I wonder if UNHCR will understand our plight".
The resettlement process is long and bureaucratic, and starts with the families first filling forms. Then the host country looks at the applicants and decides whether or not to take them, after which there are health checkups and orientation classes about the countries the refugees are being sent to. They are then taken in buses to Bhadrapur airport to fly to Kathmandu for their onward journeys.
Many of the refugees have for the first time in their lives found the dignity of citizenship after first being thrown out of their homeland and living in stateless limbo in refugee camps for two decades. The younger children are doing well in their new host countries, but there are reports that elderly refugees are having a difficult time adjusting. Older refugees generally tend to do better if they are close to their children and grandchildren.
Ranmaya was 32 when she and her husband were driven out of Bhutan with their small children. They still hope they will one day see their motherland, but for the time being all they want is to be reunited with their children in Canada.
Ranmaya and Tek Bahadur sit inside their low-ceilinged bamboo hut gazing silently at the monsoon raindrops falling on puddles outside. Says Tek Bahadur: "We were first torn away from our homeland, and now our families are torn apart".
See also:No refuge when refugees leave, MARCUS BENIGNO in JHAPA
As camps for Bhutan refugees close, locals lose business
Those who want to stay, GOPAL GARTAULA in JHAPA
Bhampa Rai was a royal physician before being driven out of Bhutan. Unlike most refugees, he doesn't want to be resettled in America or Europe.
Gross National Shame, ANURAG ACHARYA

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