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.

unhcr

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

Advertenties

Freedom of speech in a country in distress.

The Netherlands is a country in distress. A land with a population and a government and parliament who in general do not longer understand the basics of democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of demontration. Liberties that are the very foundation of the international acknowledged human rights and the part of the root of a free democracy.

Why do I make such a judgement?

Well, let’s bring forward two incidents involving Dutch members of parliament to illustrate why I write this.

Geert Wilders
(PVV member of parliament – allowed to initiate a discriminating website and backed by the prime minister)

A couple of weeks ago the right wing political party, Freedom Party or PVV, started an initiative by bringing a website online were anyone is requested to file complaints about specific groups in Dutch society. Focussing on Polish and Eastern Europeans as being the cause of raising criminality figures, stealing jobs from the Dutch and things like that. At least according to the opinion of that party. Of course a large number of decent Dutch and almost the whole European Union reponded in anger. Justly so. But the prime minister (from the Liberal party) simply refused to denounce that PVV initiative. Even when urged to do so by almost all non PVV politicians in the Netherlands and many others in Europe. The effect of that of course is the démasqué of the Netherlands as a tolerant and non discriminating country. Simply because a political party that is supporting the minority Liberal-Christian Democrat government is allowed to discriminate and the prime minister backs that.

Somehow in this case some people lost focus on the value of freedom of speech as they seem to interpret that as the freedom to insult and discriminate. And some other politicians do not even want to stay away from that. Making this incident the ultimate devaluation of the universal right to freedom of speech. Thank you Mr. Wilders for helping to make this disgusting political attitude clear by initiating that flatout discriminating website that is still active to the disgrace of the Netherlands.

Sharon Gesthuizen
(Socialist Party member of parliament – arrested for protesting peaceful while carrying a coffin)

Today there was another incident. A Dutch member of parliament and Socialist Party was arrested during a public protest against the bad ecnomic policy of the Dutch postal service. The arrest was made by the police because she did not adhere to previously ‘agreed’ rules for that protest. Thing is that the police makes rules and simply does not accept that these rules are broken, even non violently. What did happen during that protest? Well, the deal was that it was to be held in a specific location in front of the parliament building and that the protestors were not allowed to bring a coffin with them during that protest. Reason for that being that the police finds carrying a coffin in a protest on the same day as the funeral of the children victims of a terrible bus accident is being held in Belgium, our neighbouring country, indecent.

This is interesting as in this case the police seems to be judging the way protesters (non violently) protest. Not based on the law but on the police’s opinion on what is decent. Something that is most certainly not in the capacity of the police to do. There is no legal basis for that and only in ‘police states‘ where democracy is not the basis the police force does things like that. The arrest was explicitly made for that reason according to the police spokes person. Now, of course it is not very sensitive of the protestors and this member of parliament in regard to the feelings of the victims of that bus accident and their relatives. But on the other hand this protest had absolutely nothing to do with that. The reaon for protesting was something completely different and the location of the protest in our country. So the police doesn’t allow a protest because of a memorial service in another country.
By all means this is a crazy thing. The police actually is limiting the freedom of speech and arresting a member of parliament without a legal basis. Therefore the police is breaching the democratic foundation and rules of this country.

So the simple conclusion is that right wing politicians have the liberty to openly insult and discriminate against groups in the Dutch society and even make an openly call for action to the population to do the same. Left wing politicians on the other hand who protest against an anti-social policy of a large company are arrested because of carrying harmles (though possibly shocking) objects in a peaceful protest are arrested by the police and held in custody for five hours.
Connecting these two incidents is a good example of the current state of democracy and freedom in the Netherlands. That state can be comprised into one four words long sentence:

Gone  – down – the – drain.

The Netherlands is a country in distress. Democracy is translated in the freedom to insult and dicriminate, vulnerable people, the arts, education, health care, public transport and many other important areas of society are being abolished and opposition is being silenced by the police on vague and unlawful grounds. But does anyone in parliament see this reality? Do the people see this? Does anyone get worried? Does anyone do anything against this moral downfall?

Alice © 2012