Twenty Bhutanese refugees, including a one-year-old child, Monday bid a tearful farewell to Nepal and the hope of ever being able to return home, as they headed for the US to start a new life after languishing for 17 years in closed camps. Three refugee families with 20 members, who had flown along with 43 more peers from their shanties in Sanischare camp in eastern Nepal, sobbed and looked glum as they went inside Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport to fly out to start life afresh in the US.
“We don’t know what we are going to do,” said Manorath Koirala, the head of a family of 10 members.
“We have not even been told where we are going. We have been given no documents except for one that identifies us as refugees.”
Lack of transparency and secrecy shrouded the resettlement process with the International Organisation for Migration, chosen to facilitate the exodus, remaining evasive and herding the refugees into the airport to prevent interaction with awaiting journalists.
Over 30,000 of the nearly 108,000 people living in two eastern districts of Nepal under the supervision of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have applied for third-country settlement after the US last year spearheaded a drive by western countries to offer a new home to them and Nepal finally agreed to allow them go instead of pushing for repatriation.
“We lived in the camp for 17 years,” said a bleak Koirala. “Bhutan refused to take us back and Nepal refused to let us become citizens. India furthermore prevented us from returning home.”
“We are now forced to leave so that our children might have a better future.”
The exodus starts ironically as Bhutan goes to its first general election March 24 in a purported bid by its royal family to democratise the isolated Himalayan kingdom and begin handing over power to an elected government.
The refugee drama started in the 1980s when Bhutan began cracking down on citizens of Nepali origin.
The evicted Lhotsampas, as they were called, first fled to India across the border, from where thousands proceeded to Nepal.
Though Bhutan held over 15 rounds of repatriation talks with Nepal due to mounting international pressure, it broke off dialogue under a pretext and has not allowed a single refugee to return.
On the contrary, its ministers have gone on record as saying that Maoists pervade the refugee camps and to allow the refugees back would be tantamount to importing terrorism.
Though Nepal and the international community urged India, Bhutan’s biggest donor and trade partner, to persuade the Druk government, New Delhi has refused to do so, saying the issue was a bilateral matter between Bhutan and Nepal.
The third country resettlement offer gave rise to mounting tension in the camps and violence as those desiring to return home clashed with those willing to go abroad.
Earlier this month, there was a devastating fire in one of the camps, rendering over 9,000 people homeless and adding to the urgency of the need to find a durable solution to the refugee issue.
On Wednesday, the remaining 43 refugees who came from east Nepal would flow to New Zealand.