World Refugee Day 2011: Bhutanese refugees.

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The day I write this at a rooftop restaurant near the Boudha stupa is June 20, world refugees day as announced by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). For the over 100.000 refugees from Bhutan a day that they should act. Actually a day that not only they but also representatives of the resettlement countries and the Nepalese government to do so. For now over twenty years more than a hundred thousand (and if we count the ones living illegally in India and Nepal) probably more than 150.000 Bhutanese are still in exile as a result of ethnic cleansing by the government of Bhutan on instigation of it’s feudal monarch.

The country by the way has as many inhabitants as for instance Amsterdam, the capitol of my own country. The small scale of Bhutan makes the whole situation or me at least strange to observe. On a numerical basis it is as if the mayor and city of Amsterdam would have exiled all the inhabitants from a few outskirts like the Bijlmer …

A refugee in Beldangi showing his Bhutan identity papers…

Over the last twenty years Nepal has carried the burden of allowing up to 108.000 refugees in seven camps in the southeast of the country. And it was not supposed to stay like that for so long. Talks with Bhutan to take back it’s own people have continuously stranded on the inhumane attitude of king Wangchuck and his prime minister Thinley. Both in fact to be regarded as criminals instead of rightful rulers. Because no matter the background against what the exile of the Bhutanese from the south (and a part of the east) was organized by Bhutan’s rulers, it is a criminal act to exile your own citizens.

There is no doubt whether these people have the right to live in their own country. Historians, researchers and journalists have proven many times that these people have been an important part of the Bhutanese society for many generations. Not any statement from mr. Thinley about their status can change historical facts. It is also proven that the exile of these people was forcefully. After all, there are still many political prisoners in Bhutan and the harshness of the regime against it’s own citizens when they claim normal citizen and human rights is almost unmatched on an international scale. The country behaves like North Korea or Birma. It can do so by the protection of India that has an interest in maintaining the current situation of Bhutan as a dependent albeit autonomous vassal state. India even trains the Bhutanese army and police. Still India will not let itself be dragged into the discussions on the future of the Bhutanese refugees.

The west has long supported the stay of these refugees in the camps in the Morang and Jhapa districts of Nepal together with the Nepalese government. From a geopolitical standpoint understandable as any unrest in the regions is unwanted from western perspective because the neighbors of Bhutan and Nepal are China and India, both nuclear powers. Since a few years nine countries are resettling the refugees from the camps to the west driving up the cost of taking care for these refugees. But that cost is taken probably as the price to pay for an unstable peace in the region. And the west even invests in the medievally ruled Bhutan in reforestation programs and other ecological efforts of the Bhutan regime. After all, the west has to balance it’s negative CO2 balance. Still the third country resettlement program, unjustly and euphemistically nowadays named by officials to be a ‘durable solution’ has given, and will continue to do so, tens of thousands of the Bhutanese refugees a new future in the west. The US, Canada, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are making a great effort to help these people on humanitarian grounds. That in itself is admirable and in these times where western countries are closing their borders exceptional to say the least. But they will not be able to resettle all the refugees. According to UNHCR sources some 10.000 will remain in (probably) one camp in Nepal. It is expected that the Beldangi camp near Damak will stay housing those people. Maybe indefinitely because Bhutan still doesn’t want to talk about repatriation and Nepal is not willing to allow integration in its society. And because the resettling countries do not translate their efforts (practical and financial) in pressure on the Bhutan government, it is doubtful that change will come.

But how about the refugees themselves? According to UNHCR sources some 95% percent have opted for resettlement. That percentage will not become reality but in the end be limited to some 90% of the total number of people. The rest, the 10.000 plus, will remain. The political organization level of the whole group is low. People have no reason to trust or depend on their politicians. The few political parties that have been organized outside of Bhutan have not been effective in twenty years and are besides some unsuccessful efforts to mobilize people in the past two decades not able to bring change or gain international attention for their cause. Some of the major politicians are quarreling amongst themselves on the strategy to follow. There has not been a single effective attempt to mobilize the international political scene and to get the cause of the refugees on the international agenda. The Bhutanese do not have a Dalai Lama that can speak for them and is regarded as an international figure of importance. They dearly miss effective leadership. Bhutan has taken advantage of that in the past twenty years by keeping silent and by lying and cheating on the international political scene. Within the SAARC countries (South Asian Association For Regional Cooperation) the case of the refugees has not been seriously discussed or handled. Bhutan and more important India blocks discussions on that level. The UN is dominated by countries that prefer a contained situation over a possible conflict with the buffer state Bhutan that is geographically and politically squeezed between China and India.

It’s good to see that most of the refugees that have been resettled do well. They have earned a better life than they would have had when staying in the refugee camps. But the opportunities they get are related to their status as an immigrant. In a sense they have been lucky as the people who still live in Bhutan will not get these opportunities. And the ones that stay behind have nothing to look at regarding a decent future as a human being. The situation in the camps is deplorable, international attention will no doubt drift away along with the refugees who are resettling. The number of the ones to stay are in the end so low that it is unlikely that there will be serious investments made in their future. The are condemned by faith. Just like so many other refugees living world wide, most of them in poor countries under dire conditions. One can only hope that in the end Bhutan gets its act together or Nepal will allow them to integrate in Nepali society.

Alice Verheij is an independent writer, journalist and film maker currently working on the documentary ‘Headwind’ about the Bhutanese exiles living in diaspora and author of the soon to be published novel ‘Headwind’.