Thursday, October 16, 2008

Dreams of home fade for Bhutan's expelled Nepali refugees

Source: AFP

BELDANGI REFUGEE CAMP, Nepal (AFP) — After more than 15 years living in bamboo huts in a refugee camp in Nepal, Hem Lal Subedi has no desire to return to Bhutan, and now sees his only option is a new life overseas.

Subedi is one of 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepalese origin who fled Bhutan in the early 1990s after compulsory national dress was introduced and the Nepalese language was banned.

The new regulations sparked protests which led to a harsh clampdown by authorities.

"I gave up wanting to return about a year ago," said the 53-year-old once-wealthy farmer in the sprawling Beldangi refugee camp that sits next to rice fields in southern Nepal.

"We have spent too long in this camp where we are forced to live like beggars and rely on United Nations handouts," said Subedi outside his simple hut.

Bhutan's government says the people who left in large numbers in the early 1990s were either immigrants who had settled illegally in Bhutan or people leaving Bhutan voluntarily.

"Life in the camps is often much better than that prevailing in Nepal, India or Bhutan. This is the reason so many people have congregated in the camps claiming to be refugees," Bhutanese spokesman Kinzang Dorji told AFP.

But human rights groups have said the refugees are victims of an ethnic cleansing campaign that saw one-sixth of Bhutan's 600,000 people forced out.

Nepalese farmers began settling in what is now Bhutan hundreds of years ago, and numbers increased through last century due to the underused fertile land in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The ethnically Nepalese farmers were given Bhutanese citizenship in 1958, and many in the camps still hold onto their documents in the hope that they might one day get their land back.

Subedi still has his papers -- and is in no confusion about his status.

"I am a refugee. The Bhutanese forced me to leave. I was in hiding because I had taken part in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in 1990 and my wife was tortured," he said.

The governments of Nepal and Bhutan have held 16 fruitless rounds of negotiations over the refugees and, with no sign they will ever be allowed back, many like Subedi have given up hope.

-- Giving up the right to return --

The chance of a new start arose for the 107,000 camp residents in 2006, when the US offered to resettle at least 60,000, with Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark and Norway agreeing to take smaller numbers.

But the resettlement offer caused serious tensions between factions in the camps.

Radical Bhutanese Maoist groups have bombed the offices of the International Office of Migration (IOM), the organisation resettling the refugees.

And they have attacked empty buses returning from the airport after dropping off refugees to begin their long journeys overseas.

Five thousand people have already been resettled, and those who want to stay and campaign to be allowed back into Bhutan are losing ground, with around 50,000 of the refugees registered to leave the camps.

Refugee leader Bhampha Rai was surgeon to Bhutan's royal family before he fled in 1991, and he thinks the refugees who have applied to be resettled are making a huge mistake.

"Most people think America and these other countries are heaven but they are not. The refugees lack skills and are going to really struggle when they get there," said Rai.

He believes that by agreeing to resettlement, the refugees are giving up their claims to Bhutanese nationality, and allowing the issue to fizzle out.

"The people leaving are not thinking about the long-term consequences of their actions," said the leader, who has seen support for his standpoint dwindle.

"Once they go they will find it very hard to revive their nationality and are unlikely to be allowed ever to come back."

Deoka Bharati, 27, is committed to remaining a refugee in Nepal, even as she watches many of her friends depart.

"We are not very hopeful of being able to go back, but if we are here at least the dream of returning is kept alive," said Bharati, who teaches children in a town near the camp.

"If we are in a third country there will be no chance at all."

Despite fleeing Bhutan in the middle of the night with just the clothes she wore, Bharati is firm in her decision to stay.

"In my heart I am Bhutanese, and I don't think I will find a good life abroad. Bhutan is my motherland, I grew up there and I want to go back."

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