By Dave Carlson
One of the world’s largest resettlement operations began several months ago when 100 refugees from Bhutan left their camps in Nepal for Kathmandu and then on to the US. The refugees who are now arriving have spent the last 17 years living in 7 camps making it one of the most protracted refugee situations in Asia. Of the 104,000 ethnic Nepalese currently in these camps the US has agreed to the resettlement of 60,000 with others going to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway.
The Lhotshampas compose the vast majority of the ethnic Nepalese who are descendents of Nepalese who moved into Bhutan in the nineteenth century. Though never successfully assimilated, most do not think of themselves as Nepali yet that is the language they speak. They consider themselves to be Bhutanese and until 1988 they were able to own land and gain citizenship within Bhutan. The 1988 census revealed that Bhutan’s population was 48% Buddhist, 45% Nepali and 7% other. Increasingly it became apparent to the authorities that this demographic shift threatened their privileged position as well as their Buddhist culture given the rising influence of a sizable Hindu minority. Out of this growing concern new eligibility requirements for Bhutanese citizenship were created that effectively disenfranchised many ethnic Nepalese. In response to this crack down large-scale protests broke out in 1990 which resulted in violent clashes with both police and the army and many arrests were made. The authorities increased their intimidation of the Lhotshampas by destroying their property and arbitrarily detaining and torturing activists. Finally, in 1990 the authorities announced that Lhotshampas who could not prove they were residents of Bhutan prior to 1958 would be forced to leave. This led to a great exodus of refugees out of Bhutan and into Nepal where they were required to live in 7 camps.
Bhutan and Nepal have been at loggerheads ever since over how to solve this refugee problem. Since 1993 there have been more than a dozen high-level meetings between the governments of Bhutan and Nepal to resolve the crisis with nothing having been accomplished. International observers and particularly human rights organizations have concluded that Bhutan’s behavior towards the Lhotshampas is ethnic cleansing. They fear that accepting such state actions could set a dangerous precedent for the region and might result in the expulsion of minorities from other South Asian countries.
The exile of these people for whom there are few opportunities for employment and education has resulted in increased suicide rates, domestic violence, alcoholism and trafficking in women and children. While the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has done every thing in its power to provide for the needs of this huge population, it has had to confront formidable challenges. These people have lived almost two decades without having an identity. There is a great deal of anger over the way they have been treated by the governments of Nepal, India, and Bhutan. And yet, for many they would prefer to return to Bhutan than resettle to the US. Above all however, they do not want to remain in the camps where a single oil lamp can accidently burn down an entire camp in a matter of minutes as it did on March 1, 2008, at Goldhap, leaving eight thousand people standing in a field with only the clothes they were wearing.
Most of the Nepalis who have come to the US over the past few decades have been relatively well educated and with the exception of those fleeing the Maoists not subjected to terror and intimidation. These refugees who are now on our door step are a much different group. Before being forcibly removed from their homes 17 years ago, many were simple villagers with a few animals and little awareness of an outside world. Many have since been born and died in the camps where their lives have been lived in limbo. These people are going to need a great amount of caring and support for them to avoid depression, to acculturate and find employment.
The Division of Refugee Assistance (DRA) of the US Department of Health and Human Services provides direction to states to ensure that refugees are provided assistance and services through state administered programs that enable them to become employed and economically self-sufficient as soon as possible after their arrival in the US.
As RPCVs to Nepal there is so much we can do to touch the lives of these people. One place to start is to first locate the Office of Refugee Resettlement in your state to learn about ethnic Nepali Bhutanese now in or soon to come to your area. Their web site is www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/partners/state_coordina.htm Below are some of the many ways that RPCVs to Nepal can be instrumental in helping these people get a new start in the US:
– Tutor refugees in English skills
– Help refugees write resumes and prepare for job interviews
– Contact potential employers on behalf of refugees
– Assist the local contract group to provide cultural orientations for refugees
– Accompany refugees to various appointments
– Provide basic office support
-Mentor refugee families or individuals