Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bhutanese refugees have eye on U.S. Emigration increasing from Nepal to United States, Europe as repatriation hopes fade

Source: Yomiuri Shimbun

About 9,770 Bhutanese now live with Narayan Gurung in a refugee camp in Bhadrapur, one of seven camps in southeastern Nepal.

Yet the apparent tranquility of the camp, surrounded by a tea plantation and forest, where housewives can be seen with shopping baskets and some of the boys play table tennis, masks the reality of extensive reconstruction work after more than 90 percent of the homes there were destroyed by fire in early March.

Gurung is one of tens of thousands of Bhutanese refugees that have been languishing in the camps since the early 1990s.

He said he has been working every day on reconstruction efforts, but, along with many others, he now has one eye on moving overseas.

"If I obtain immigration permission, I could go to the United States as early as tomorrow," Gurung, 24, says of the application he has submitted. "I'm hoping to work in the tourism industry."

Gurung is one of an increasing number of refugees planning to leave Nepal to be resettled in the United States or a European country.

Many ethnic Nepalese, a Hindu minority in Bhutan, were deprived of their civil rights and forced from their homes by Bhutanese authorities promoting Buddhism-first policies in the early 1990s. Since then, more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese have become refugees in Nepal.

With no prospects of repatriation, many have now given up returning home and are instead migrating.

In late March, 100 ethnic Nepalese left Nepal for the United States, while as many as 10,000 more in the seven camps are expected leave the camps this year.

According to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, about 25,000 Bhutanese refugees have submitted applications to emigrate to the United States, which offered to resettle 60,000 Bhutanese refugees in 2006, as well as to Canada, Australia and Europe. This number is expected to increase in the coming years.

Bhutan, once a monarchy, held its first general election in March, prompting widespread international praise for the country's first steps toward democracy.

However, the refugees were not allowed to cast a ballot, prompting some, including Narad Adhikari, secretary general of the Druk National Congress, an exiled Bhutanese political organization, to question how much progress the election really marks.

According to the UNHCR and reports complied by the U.S. State Department, the number of residents of ethnic Nepalese origin increased sharply in southern Bhutan from the 19th century.

In the 1980s, the Bhutanese government, dominated by ethnic Tibetans, deprived those not holding a certificate of land ownership of basic civil rights, and introduced a number of oppressive policies such as requiring Bhutanese of ethnic Nepali origin to wear the country's ethnic costumes and banning them from using the Nepalese language, all in the name of reviving the country's traditions.

These measures led to widespread demonstrations in 1990 that were quashed by the Bhutanese government, which arrested the organizers of the protests.

Bhutanese of ethnic Nepalese origin were forced to sign a document stating that they would leave Bhutan on a voluntary basis, and were expelled from the country. After India, which borders Bhutan, refused to accept the refugees, most went to Nepal.

But Adhikari is concerned about the decision by so many to leave for a third country and argues the refugees should be entitled to repatriation and be allowed to reclaim their property. He says that settling for emigration to the United States and European nations would be tantamount to encouraging the Bhutanese government to further eliminate other minorities.

Yet, after 15 attempts, there is no sign of progress in discussions between Bhutan and Nepal over the repatriation of refugees, prompting the United States and European countries to offer to resettle the refugees.

For those still remaining, there has been ongoing tension with local residents.

And although some still in the camps are engaged in unskilled labor such as helping farmers around the camps, living in the camps means most are not able to secure employment.

Indra Prashad Chapagai, 54, speaks for many who are pondering emigrating.

"I think it's necessary to leave Nepal for the sake of my children's job prospects," he said.

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