Is UNHCR creating malnutrition in the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal?

A few days ago a letter was written by important members of the Bhutanese refugee community in Nepal to the UNHCR in that country. The letter is a request to discuss maltreatment by the UNHCR regarding the refugees they are supposed to take care of.

What is happening?

Since the early 1990’s the UNHCR has managed and maintained a number of refugee camps in the southeast of Nepal (more exact, in the Jhapa and Morang districts). At its height there were over 107.000 refugees listed in those camps. Since 2008 the UNHCR has started the by far largest third country resettlement program ever aiming at completely solving the decades long refugee crisis of the Bhutanese who exiled from their Shangri-La like country in the Himalayas.

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The UNHCR has done a tremendous job in guarding peace in those camps while at the same time bringing essential humanitarian aid the the inhabitants. Nepal (just like India and Bhutan) never signed the UN refugee treaty so the UNHCR has been working there on a UN mandate. They have been partnering with AMDA (Asian Medical Doctors Association) for health care, Caritas for education, Lutheran World Federation for camp management and monitoring and the WFP World Food Program for food distribution to the camp communities that have no other means of existence.

But things have changed. The aim of the UNHCR in Nepal seems to have shifted in the past few years from caring for the refugees who livin in limbo in the camps to bringing a durable solution to their situation by third country resettlement. According to the international morale of refugees the people should repatriate but that has obviously proven to be an impossible dream as Bhutan, the country of Gross National Happiness, has been frustrating talks and efforts for that ever since the crisis started in 1991. Assimilation in the Nepalese and Indian society is also a no go as Nepal and India do not accept that (the lack the resources to do that on a humanitarian responsible manner), hence the durable solution of the UNHCR: resettling to the west.

This resettlement project is well underway with almost two thirds of the refugees already resettled to mainly the US and countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway Denmark, Netherlands and the UK. But there are fears that not all refugees will resettle. After all it is an opt-in project and not all refugees desire a life in a completely alien western society ultimately losing their history, religion and way of life in due time. Some 10,000 refugees have not opterd for resettlement. Let alone the other more than 4,000* refugees that have not been registered as refugees for a variety of reasons. They do however live in those camps without food, healthcare and proper housing. (* The number is based on a headcount by camp management in 2011 and has decreased to a yet unknown figure.)

So something needs to happen. Recently the UNHCR has announced that they can no longer provide vegetables to the refugees, taking out an important element in their diet which is by no means extensive. The effects of not supplying vegetables as of January 2013 will no doubt be deteriorating health of the camps population in the coming years. The reason the UNHCR has given is that they lack a proper budget for this essential food. Which is very strange as the European Union has provided for a over 3 Million Euro budget for the UNHCR for the years 2012, 2013 and 2014, continuing the financing of the UNHCR’s operation in regard to those camps. So what is happening?

According to the Beldangi camp secretary, Dhan Bir Subba, (Beldangi is the largest of the two remaining camps) the UN has informed them that the budget is redistributed by the UNHCR to other refugee crisis areas in the world. Basically stating that they simply do no longer see a priority in maintaining proper support to the Bhutanese refugees still living in the camps in Nepal. Which of course is an extra push to get the refugees to the point that they will opt for resettlement. So is this argument used by the UNHCR just a trick to reach a ‘durable solution’ by increasing pressure on the refugee community to resettle completely? And if so, is that ethical?

According to Subba the UNHCR has declared that they have no other option than to decrease the available budget for the Bhutanese exiles in the camps, a ‘Hopson’s choice’ so to speak. The UNHCR has also declared that they will distribute vegetable seeds as an alternative, but as the remaining camps are heavily populated, the availability of enough land to grow crops is a question that remains. The UNHCR seems to have suggested to use the empty huts of resettlers for that purpose.

The chairman of the Bhutanese Refugee Representative Repatriation Committee, Dr Bhampa Rai, who I have het the privilige to interview a number of times concerning the situation of the refugees, has condemned the UNHCR decision. And by all means, the timeline between announcing and stopping vegetable distribution is just over a month, making it impossible for the refugees to grow enough crops for a healthy nutrition, seems irresponsible.

“The decision has created doubts on UNHCR’s intention towards refugees. How can those who themselves survive on delicious vegetables on daily basis decide to stop the supply of the same items for us,” Dr Rai said according to the Bhutan News Service.

The question that this raises is wether the UNHCR is now going to a stage in promoting resettlement to the refugees by disregarding basic human rights like proper nutrition. And that is not all. The Bhutanese refugees feel that they are pressurized by the UNHCR to resettle, which means that they doubt wether they really have a free choince NOT to resettle but continue hoping for repatriation to their motherland.

Apart from the other issues mentioned in the request written by major community leaders to the UNHCR (see the attached letter), the nutrition issue is a very serious decline in the basic care for the refugees and frustrates the mandate of the UNHCR itself. The monthly supply of (only) 500 grams of season vegetables is ending this month. The diet of refugees in the camps will lack one of its important components and is for health reasons undesireable.

It is worrying that the UNHCR is also forbidding the refugee leaders to bring their complaints to the VIP’s who visit the camps. From personal experience working as a journalist in the camps I do know that some issues (like the large numner of unregistered refugees, the deteriorating education in the camps and the mounting crime like identity fraud and even institutionalized fraud) are being kept under the radar. Freedom of press and freedom of speech are just as much at stake as the basic human rights of the camp population. ‘Thou shalt not report negative’ is an adagium in this unmonitored situation.

LETTER-TO-UNHCR

It seems that the UNHCR is building pressure to end the Bhutanese refugee crisis and is not stepping away from methods that should be doubted and discussed on an international level and especially at the European Union, being the main financier of the UNHCR in Nepal.

In the meanwhile malnutrition is something that the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal should fear. The reality of life in the UNHCR managed refugee camps in Nepal is that things are not at all nice and dandy and in fact seem to become worse. But will the international community respond to that?

© 2012 Alice Anna Verheij