After all these yearsDon’t wear that dress, people will throw rocks at you,” *Mina Pradhan’s father tells her as she dons her aunt’s richly coloured kira, or women’s traditional dress, on the morning of December 17.
Don’t wear that dress, people will throw rocks at you,” *Mina Pradhan’s father tells her as she dons her aunt’s richly coloured kira, or women’s traditional dress, on the morning of December 17. She wants to appear in character while delivering a speech to the refugee community on The National Day of Bhutan, so she does it anyway.
Mr Pradhan’s concern is only mildly met by one woman, who exclaims, “Ugh, I hate that thing!” when she sees Mina in her shop that morning. Though the dress doesn’t hold personal significance to Mina, the emotional impact felt by the older community members living within Beldangi Refugee Camp is well founded.
To some, it represents repression, torture, and ultimately, exile.
Despite the mass expulsion of 108,000 of them, Bhutanese refugees still spend December 17 loyally celebrating their first modern king, King Ugyen Wangchuck, as they have done for nearly three decades in the camps. This year marks the 110th anniversary of coronation of the former King Ugyen Wangchuck, and the camp is loud with traditional songs and dance, karate demonstrations, and speeches from special guests.
When I ask Mina why Bhutanese celebrate the monarchy when, in effect, it is the same monarchy that drove them out of their homes, she tells me many young Bhutanese say that they love the current King Jigme Singye Wangchuck (the son of the king celebrated on the National Day of Bhutan). “He is the reason they are able to go to America,” something many young people dream of.
As with the kira, the older refugees have quite different feelings from love and appreciation to the present King that tortured and imprisoned them, leaving them landless and powerless some 27 years later.
But, politics aside, the refugees use this day to pay tribute to their country, not its leaders.
“The country has nothing to do with evicting us,” says Thiru Sharma, a school principal in Beldangi II. “It [was] the rulers who [did] so, especially Mr Dago Tshering, then Home Minister, along with the King Kigme Singye Wangchuk, the father of the present King Jigme Kheshar Namgyal Wangchuck.”
Bhutanese with Nepali origins, called Lhopshampas, have lived in Eastern Nepal as refugees since the early 90s, when ethnic cleansing drove them out of their own country.
They had been a growing population in southern Bhutan since 1624, when 41 families moved there from Gorkha, Nepal, to foster agriculture as a result of a treaty signed between the two governments. Their Nepali culture remained intact over generations, which became seen as a threat to their King.
After a government census in 1988 in Southern Bhutan, it was found that Lhopshampas accounted for a growing majority in the population. Under King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Lhopshampa people were made to abandon their own culture in favour of speaking the local language, celebrating the local traditions, and exclusively wearing Bhutanese dresses.
As part of the census, the Lhopshampa’s were also made to produce tax receipts showing land ownership predating the time they were granted citizenship in 1958. Those who couldn’t were declared illegal immigrants and given forced resignation from their jobs, making it impossible to feed their families. Some were subject to imprisonment, rape, and torture.
As a result, the Lhotshampas fled through India, which refused to keep them, to Nepal, where the United Nations took over beginning in 1992.
The third-country resettlement process, headed by the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) in 2007, has sent 90 percent of Bhutanese refugees across eight developed countries. The United States of America alone has resettled nearly 100,000 of them.
UNHCR says that there are 1,000 refugees still processing, emptying out by the hundreds three times a week for resettlement. The process will officially conclude by December of 2018. Now, as the resettlement process is no longer available, the remaining sum are left with repatriation or local assimilation, neither of which are options at this point in time.
Of the close to 7,000 refugees that will remain in Beldangi and Sanischare camps in Jhapa, only a small number put their foot down solely for repatriation. In a survey given in 2015, the UNHCR identified that refugee wishes “varied according to age-group; with elderly refugees being more inclined toward returning to Bhutan,” agency officials say.
“If we were chased from America by our forefathers, we would love to go back to America,” says Sunbir Biswa, who wears a traditional men’s gho to the celebration on Thursday. This sentiment, shared by an estimated less than 20 percent of the remaining refugees, is a huge stake in the argument for repatriation.
Though there are dwindling numbers of those holding out hope to return home, they remain steadfast in their beliefs that the refugee crisis can only be solved by an allowance back to Bhutan, not to any new home in America or anywhere else. Within the camp, there are three active groups for repatriation.
A well-known leader of the movement, Bhutanese Refugees Representatives Repatriation Committee (BRRRC) chairman and former royal surgeon, Doctor Bhampa Rai, says that he had encouraged fellow refugees not to go to any other country.
“I said to them ‘Let’s be like a tumoru,’” Dr Rai tells me. I quickly learn that he used medical metaphors to explain all of his big ideas. “Let’s be the big goiter of Nepal so they will look for the surgeon. If the goiter is getting reduced it will disappear,” he said, urging his community to band together.
Despite Dr Rai’s, and many others’ efforts, the ‘goiter’ has reduced by 90 percent since 2007.
At a certain point, it becomes about the love of one’s family over the love of their country for many refugees that have perused resettlement, despite language barriers, vast cultural differences, reports of long work hours, and high suicide rates abroad.
That was the case for Man Maya Gurung, 72, a silver haired beauty who served me orange soda and invited me into her private temple when I first met her last month. The temple, made from bamboo and guarded by a fat lock, was built for her by her husband. Though the two originally advocated for repatriation, Mrs Gurung lost the will of waiting when her husband died in 2014. “There was no one,” says her son, Robin Gurung, whose delayed paperwork has kept him in Beldangi, “so I encouraged her to go to America.” Mrs Gurung is now settling in Rochester, New York, with her daughter and grandson. Five of her six children have resettled in the USA and Canada.
The option of gaining citizenship to a developed country where refugees are given the ability to live freely and earn proved appealing to most, even older members who were holding out for repatriation. With gradually shrinking humanitarian aid and the inability to legally work, buy property, or attend university in Nepal, resettling in a developed country became the logical option for most of the population. Especially since, as Robin Gurung said, “We don’t know when or if repatriation will ever happen.”
Negotiations between Bhutan and Nepal have gone stale for over a decade. In a series of 15 talks over the past 27 years, there has been no solution. Since 2003, there has only been one dialogue at the foreign ministry level.
“Right now, it is not foreseen,” Information Officer at Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ram Babu Dhakal, says of repatriation to Bhutan. He is clear that the option still remains, though, “We cannot say the date, time, year. But the door [to Bhutan] is not closed,” he adds as a hopeful message for those that wish to return home.
But to invoke the word ‘home’ in this refugee camp is like describing colour to the colourblind: It is subjective. ‘Home’ can mean anything from Nepal, to The United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norwary, The United Kingdom, The Netherlands, or, of course, Bhutan.
For the majority of the refugees left in Nepal, they still wish to resettle, despite UNHCR’s conclusion of the third country resettlement process.
“Will they let us go to America?” one woman asks me through the crosshatched window of her small shop in Beldangi. So many refugees have come to me seeking the same answer.
Despite multiple information sessions leading up to the conclusion of the resettlement process, so many have been left with complications that have ultimately left them exiled once more, this time from their families that have resettled.
Although UNHCR has made it very clear this process is finished, done, complete, Mr Dhakal from MoFA tells me the Nepali government hopes for more resettlement as a final solution.
“We are expecting [resettlement] if any other country will come forward, or the same country will accept more refugees,” he says. This would answer the prayers for those who had missed the deadline for application, were rejected from a certain country, or who changed their minds about staying in Nepal.
But for another group in Beldangi, they face a bigger problem than just resettlement ending.
“Sometimes, I feel guilty about my decisions for my children,” Mina’s father told me as we peeled oranges, the potent smell filling their hut in Beldangi III. Mr Pradhan, who suffered from a brain hemorrhage that left him half paralysed in 2008, has inadvertently cost his family their ability to leave the refugee camp.
Mina’s family of four are what are called ‘census absentees’, which means they are genuine refugees who were outside of the camp at the time identification cards were issued. Despite having filled out all the necessary paperwork and having their photos taken for the cards, since they were outside of the camp during the Nepali government issuances process for ‘genuine refugees’, they are still not able to get their cards. Census absentees total about 1,500 people within the camp.
“Without ID, nothing is possible,” Mr Pradhan says, though his tone is far from hopeless. He strategically socialises around the camps central office daily to speak with the leaders and hear about developments, if any.
“Something good is coming, I feel that way,” Mina’s father says. “We just have to sit and be patient.”
Which they do, with ample tea and neighbours that pour continuously in and out of their hut like a faucet left on. Despite a lack of immediate solutions for their futures, the refugees I’ve stayed with, spoken to, and witnessed going about their daily routines in Beldangi conduct their lives in a slow, lived-in way. One neighbour, a woman that preaches the word of the Lord, comes in while we sit and makes a beeline for the dishes waiting to be washed. “She just loves doing dishes, I don’t know why,” Mina’s younger sister says. “I always tell her not to, but she loves it.”
Although there are capped rations and limited work opportunities for the refugees, I’m invited into hut after hut for shared meals, often given the lion’s share.
“When we cook meat, we bring it around to our neighbours for sharing,” Dara tells me while placing a bowl of mutton on my already full plate. “Is it like that in America?”
“No,” I tell them. “It is absolutely not.”
*Names have been changed for those refugees who wish to remain anonymous.
Kunze is an American freelance journalist currently living in Jhapa, Nepal