Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Refugees in Nepal: Challenges Ahead

Sahana Basavapatna and Ishita Dey

As we wind up 2011 edition of Refugee Watch Online (RWO), we at RWO realize that this year, like the years before this, has been instructive in more ways than one. While some developments, such as the Australia-Malaysia swap arrangement made us realize how precarious not only the lives of the refugees but also the laws that we dearly hold on to. Closer home, the challenges are equally intimidating; while mechanisms exist, its history, politics and society provide as much of a challenge as it may be conducive for a better deal for refugees in South Asia.

In this last edition of RWO, we want to bring to the forefront some of the challenges facing Nepal, a country that has witnessed prolonged internal conflict. Nepal, a non- signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or 1967 Refugee Protocol has played the host and transit point to refugee groups, primarily Bhutanese and Tibetans. While the history of Bhutanese refugees in and Tibetans in Nepal is not unknown to us, the challenges these communities face needs some deeper introspection. After 27 years of living in camps in Nepal, the Bhutanese refugee crisis could not be resolved although this period witnessed fifteen rounds of ministerial-level negotiations between Bhutan and Nepal. Thus, finding themselves unwanted in Nepal and losing the right to return, the Bhutanese refugees were offered the Third Country Resettlement option. In 2006, the aggravating Bhutanese Refugee crisis suddenly saw an unexpected turn in the form of the United States of America offering to resettle 60,000 refugees. Similar promises followed from other countries such as Norway, Denmark, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – known as Core Working Group – to take a small share of refugees to their country. The resettlement process began in 2008. Sreeja Balarajan, in her article gives a critical insight to the life of Bhutanese refugees resettled in US. Is third country resettlement a viable solution to those who had dreamed of returning back to their homelands in Bhutan? What does it take to rebuild lives as younger generation gear up for the American dream and the older generation struggle to adapt themselves in a new environment where they find it difficult to adapt as they lack adequate communication skills?

One of the largest communities who have been forced to live a life of exile in South Asian states are the Tibetan refugees. Tibetans have lived in Nepal for decades while some transit through Nepal to travel further south towards India. In the recent times, there have been reports of closure of Reception Centre and Welfare Office of Tibetan refugees as well as arbitrary arrests of Tibetans. In a recent remark, Congressman Mr. Frank Wolf threatened to cut off aid to Nepal if it does not allow Tibetan Refugees to transit to safer places. Tashi Dhundup responds and cautions us that this statement presents Nepal the tough choice to either articulate an independent position on the Tibetan issue or succumb to the pressures of neighbours for other political reasons. Drawing from Nepal’s history of treating Tibetan refugees, it is evident that Nepal has been forced to resort to violent measures to safeguard its diplomatic position in the region.

Both these articles remind us of the challenges that confront of refugee rights practitioners. In what ways can we strengthen legal protection of refugees? While some have been advocating that South Asian states should sign the 1951 Refugee Convention; international and humanitarian agencies working in non-signatory states should also lobby for National legislation to protect and safeguard the rights of the refugees. The concern raised in both these articles need a deeper introspection on the way to respond to people affected by forced displacement in South Asia and beyond.

The editorial collective of 2011 has attempted to bring such concerns. We take this opportunity to thank our readers for their comments and look forward to more engaging contributions and comments from refugee activists, researchers and lawyers in the areas of forced migration in South Asia and beyond in 2012 as well. Please feel free to get in touch with us for any clarifications.

UNHCR Reports Indicate Resettlement Programme from Bhutanese Refugees Crosses 50,000 Marks

Jai Prasad Sunuwar flew to South Dakota in the United States earlier this month, becoming the 50,000th refugee originating from Bhutan to be resettled from Nepal under a programme launched four years ago by UNHCR and its partners.

Under one of UNHCR's largest resettlement programmes, more than 42,000 of the refugees have begun new lives in the United States. Others have left camps in eastern Nepal for resettlement in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. They had come to Nepal during the early 1990s, fleeing ethnic tensions in Bhutan.

When the resettlement programme began in November 2007 there were almost 110,000 refugees from Bhutan residing in seven camps in eastern Nepal, three of which have since been closed. Of those remaining in the camps, some 47,000 have expressed an interest in resettlement.

The UN refugee agency is responsible for interviewing refugees and referring their files to resettlement countries, while the International Organization for Migration conducts health assessments, organizes cultural orientation courses and transports the refugees from Nepal to their countries of resettlement.

For details see; Accessed on 19 September 2011

US Lawmaker Warns Nepal of Aid Cut over Tibetans

Agence France Presse: 2011-11-05
Washington: A US lawmaker has threatened to strip Nepal of its millions of dollars in US aid unless it permits refugees fleeing Chinese rule in Tibet to transit through the country.

Nepal is the main route for Tibetans who seek to go into exile, but the country has increasingly cracked down on Tibetans’ movement and activities out of fear of upsetting its giant neighbour to the north.

Representative Frank Wolf, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee that determines US funding, said yesterday he would try to block funding to Nepal unless it grants exit visas to Tibetans who seek refuge in the United States. “We’re not just going to cut them, we’re going to zero them out,” said Wolf, a Republican from Virginia and outspoken critic of China. “If they’re not willing to do it, then they don’t share our values and if they don’t share our values, we do not want to share our dollars,” he told a congressional hearing on Tibet.

Wolf said he would propose the aid cutoff if Nepal’s record does not improve by the time the United States looks at foreign aid funding next year. Human rights groups have frequently accused Nepal of arbitrary arrests and harassment of Tibetans. In July, Nepal prevented its 20,000-strong Tibetan community from celebrating the birthday of spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. The United States has supported Nepal as it recovers from a decade-long civil war.

The US Agency for International Development says it sought $57.7 million for Nepal in the 2010 fiscal year and that its efforts to provide children in Nepal with Vitamin A have averted some 15,000 deaths a year.

( Tashi Dhundup responds to this comment in the section on Views)

Short Course on Forced Migration

The Center for Migration and Refugee Studies (CMRS) at the American University in Cairo (AUC) is offering the following four short courses during the month of January and February 2012

1. Demographics Measures of Migration (January 29- February 2, 2012):

Course Description: The course will provide post-graduate students, international agency staff, NGO workers, government officials and others working in the field of migration data systems or interested in working in this field with an introduction to the demography of migration, including data sources, data collection, and analysis of international migration data. By the end of the course, and through presentations, case studies and real country data from developing and developed countries, participants will be able to identify migration data sources, read and understand the meanings of migration statistics, rates, and indicators, and be able to calculate main migration indicators. A very basic knowledge of mathematics, use of handheld calculators or Excel is required.

2. Migration and Refugee Movements in the Middle East and North Africa (February 5-9, 2012):

Course Description: For decades, the Middle East and North Africa region has been plagued by a multitude of political and socio-economic challenges. Population displacement has featured prominently among these challenges, and is firmly embedded in the geo-political realities of inter-State conflict and internal civil strife, as well as predominantly undemocratic systems of governance, yet it does not feature as prominently as it should in the study of the region. MENA hosts the world’s largest and longest-standing refugee problem: that of Palestinian refugees, in addition to millions of displaced Iraqis, and thousands of other displaced groups. This course will analyze the trends, causes, and consequences of asylum and migration for individuals and societies in MENA, while highlighting the political and historic context. This practice-oriented course will rely on a basic understanding of international human rights and refugee law in its analysis of asylum and migration patterns in the Levant, North Africa, Horn of Africa, and the Gulf.

3. Palestinian Refugees (February 12-16, 2012)

Course Description: The Palestinian refugee problem is perhaps the most sensitive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and one of the most vexing continuing challenges to international refugee policy. This inter-disciplinary course will be an opportunity for students to engage directly with the major practical and theoretical issues connected with Palestinian refugees, critically assessing the historical, political, legal and ideological forces that have shaped their turbulent circumstances. The course will consider perspectives from both Israeli and Palestinian viewpoints, including fields of history, law, and the social sciences, and will analyze a number of primary texts.

4. Training Skills for Trainers of Psychosocial and Mental Health Workers in Countries Affected by Emergencies (February 18-25, 2012)

Course Description: Refugees and migrants struggle with the mental health and psychosocial consequences of their experiences in the aftermath of wars, conflict, natural disasters and other emergencies. Efforts for mental health and psychosocial supportive services span the globe and are often part of aid operations. Professionals commonly need to prepare the teams to provide these services.

Eligibility for all Courses:

The courses are offered for graduate level students, researchers and practitioners in the field of migration and refugees. The maximum number of participants in each course is between 25-30.

All courses are conducted in English and no translation facilities are provided. Participants should have a sufficient command of the English language.

Application Procedure for all Courses:

To apply for the courses, please fill out the application below and attach your most recent CV and send to Att. Ms. Naseem Hashim

Visit the CMRS Short Course web page for more information:

Applicants may apply and be accepted to more than one course. Please do not hesitate to contact if you have any difficulty with the application process.

The deadline for submitting course applications is January 10, 2012.

Wolf’s Warning, will the ‘Sheep’ Listen or Kowtow again to ‘Dragon’

Tashi Dhundup

(Tashi is a Tibetan in exile, and an independent researcher.)

Keeping in mind the increasingly kowtowing behavior of the Nepalese polity in terms of its treatment towards the Tibetans in Nepal, the recent remark by the US lawmaker Frank Wolf ( For Details refer to the press release in the News Section of this edition) to cut off aid to Nepal will surely be welcomed by the Tibetans and their supporters with great hoopla. But even though it is an encouraging remark nonetheless, it might prove imperative to greet it with guarded enthusiasm. It is urgent to understand or to question in that regard, what outcome such a caveat will receive.

If we were to look back, beginning 2008, despite intense pressure from the International diplomatic communities and media outcry, the Nepalese Government went on nonchalantly to break the skulls of the Tibetan protestors and in between orchestrated the closure of two important and indispensible Tibetan community related offices vis-à-vis Tibetan Reception Center and the Tibetan Welfare Office that has been in existence for the last several decades. Not to mention the spree of clandestine and arbitrary house arrest that followed. These were already in addition to the deportation of around fifteen Tibetans in 2003 which was another milestone of easing up to the Chinese by the Nepalese Government. Despite such an outpour of public brick batting, if the Nepalese Government had wittingly continued to do the status quo, to what consequence this latest ultimatum of Representative Wolf will bear fruit remains fanciful.

The important thing to consider would be what such an ultimatum would do to the already deteriorating situations of the Tibetans in Nepal, both the residents and the ones fleeing through Nepal for that matter. For one, instead of easing up the situation it might prove otherwise, resulting in the already emaciated but now provoked law enforcers of Nepal to wield their batons upon the Tibetan recipients more forcefully. Another point to consider would be what effect it will have on the general psyche of the ordinary Nepalese citizens who are either ill-informed or unaware of the Tibetan issue in general. There is a possibility that their lackadaisical understanding of the Tibetan situation might simply turn into hate. Add to that the reaction of the Nepalese officials, who even though might portray a benign face officially, but in private might simply make the procurement of any kind of official documents by the Tibetans even more harder.

Let’s now turn to Representative Frank Wolf. Is the congressman serious or is it just a lone man’s cry with the rest of the legislators shrugging their shoulders in non-commitment, for unlike the Chinese where there are no two opinions in dealing with the Tibet situation, the American policy does not enjoy such a unified stand. And even if Congressman Wolf is serious, keeping in mind the divided opinions among the American Congressmen regarding the Tibet situation, this warning might not amount to much. In such disparity, wouldn’t it be more effective if the pressure were induced from the Indian front, keeping in mind the ‘erstwhile unacknowledged influential sway’ the Indian polity has on the Nepalese domestic politics. And wouldn’t it make even more sense, if the purpose is to aid the Tibetans in Nepal, to play the hardballs with the Chinese directly by employing the age old diplomatic card of ‘carrot and stick’.

But all these might not necessarily call for Nepal to be complacent. Even though the Nepalese Government has quickly forgotten the role Tibet as a country played in their admission into the United Nations, it is high time that Nepal should for their own good begin to stand upon their own mettle. It should begin to resist the bullying from both from the Chinese and the Indian side. Even though maintaining friendly diplomatic relation is important, it doesn’t call for the Nepalese Government’s complete prostration to the Chinese. Even though this warning might not prove in the flow of the funds from the U.S. to be deficient, the Nepalese Government should not take this warning on face value nonetheless. With the declining image of Nepal in their treatment of the Tibetans, it is a bad news already that such an ultimatum came from the US and it might do good for the Nepalese Government to stop their tomfoolery and straighten up their act, especially, when so much of a hullabaloo has been created for the attainment of a Republic, where freedom of speech, assembly and expression are the guiding principles.

Attaining Trishanku’s Heaven: Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement in the United States

Sreeja Balarajan

‘Bhutanese refugees’ will elicit you a result, unimaginable, a couple of decades ago. Even in the late 1990s, Bhutanese refugees did not generate the kind of results, they do today. This explosion of ‘knowledge’ regarding the Bhutanese refugees has coincided with one of the largest refugee resettlement process in recent years. It is unlike any focus and attention that the Bhutanese refugees have faced since their flight from Southern Bhutan.

Initially, the issue of Bhutanese refugees was to be resolved by a joint verification process between Nepal and Bhutan. This long drawn-out process ended in a stalemate but repatriation to Bhutan was never achieved. While technically contained within the camps, the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees had the dubious distinction of being refugees in a region ethnically similar to their own community and in many senses, moved freely in the larger sub-continent. Refugees travelled to India and throughout Nepal to meet their relatives, for education, employment, business, and some visited southern Bhutan clandestinely.

Within its uneasy birth and legacy, the Bhutanese refugee activism went through several phases, ranging from peaceful advocacy for repatriation, militancy, political front groups, and parties of all shades, splintering, coalescing, disappearing and coming together. The refugees were not immune to the larger socio-political movement in Nepal and the surrounding region of India. Not allowed access to legal employment and higher education, frustrated at their situation and lack of will by the international community, they were easy targets as recruits for political movements in the region.1

South Asian states, with their cross-cutting ethnic communities, have a history of internal conflict and intra-state conflict and tension as well. The increasing militancy among the refugee youth, Bhutan’s refusal to accept them back, coincided with the interests of the Core Working Group2 of countries, and pushed the third country resettlement concept as a ‘durable solution’ the Bhutanese refugee issue. Many refugees look back to the defining incident of 9/11 a decade ago.3They point towards the international community and the west, which felt compelled to choose one refugee population over another.4 Hence the advocacy of the resettlement process, which gradually came to the forefront, was dogged with a lack of transparency, secrecy, and misinformation.5

The first batch of refugees started coming to the United States in early 2008. By end of June 2011, there were around 47,843 Bhutanese refugees resettled into the United States.6 Nearly 50,000 refugees have been resettled abroad to all the countries; with a Bhutanese refugee who was resettled into the United States in South Dakota.7

In an age, where the South Asian youth aspires to go abroad, the educated and savvy Bhutanese refugee finds his/her golden opportunity in the third country resettlement process. Many such refugees will follow the expected path of other immigrants in the US. For others, it is less than robust. The refugees face the hard realities of the ‘American Dream’ in the time of economic stress and overburdened resettlement system. The Bhutanese refugees have the highest suicide rate among the re-settled refugees in the United States. A study done by the IOM, finds that suicide rate in the camps has increased from 20.3 percent per 100,000 to 27.3, post-resettlement, to 31 per 100,000 among those resettled in the US.8 An IOM study reported 12 cases of Bhutanese refugee suicides upon resettlement to a third country from 2007 until present, but it is acknowledged that this information is incomplete and, moreover, that there is no information on suicide attempts.9

The well intentioned but inherently asymmetrical power relations in the resettlement process has been debilitating for the refugees. The prospects of unemployment, stress on the traditional family and gender roles, isolation, and culture shock has affected the refugee population. Everything is not ‘as close to heaven as possible’ and ‘the necessity to adapt in a very short period to a new cultural and socioeconomic context can threaten the refugees’ self-concepts and creates disorientation’.10

In most cases, the younger refugees, with middle-aged parents are the primary wage earners for their families. The resettlement process has put majority of the Bhutanese refugees in the traditional employment path of newly arrived refugees in the US. These are predominantly entry level jobs. The younger age group and women (from all age levels) have been largely absorbed into the hospitality and retail industry. Food processing sectors like meat-packing factories have has absorbed the low skilled refugees from all age groups.11 Middle-aged and elderly refugees, forced to supplement their incomes, find work in less–than-desirable scenarios. Though the resettlement agencies are not ‘employment agencies’; they do facilitate employment opportunities. These agencies usually provide orientation services, follow-up and support services for employment.12 However, preliminary surveys and media reports indicate that there is no process to verify the effectiveness of such support services. Mostly, Bhutanese refugees (particularly new-arrivals) have to rely on kin-networks for employment opportunities.

The elderly refugees tend to be isolated due to language, and employment barriers and the changing family hierarchies. This generation has resigned themselves to the reality of never regaining what they lost. Parents with inadequate English language abilities are compelled to seek employment and are often held ransom by their school-going children as they can adapt to the language and other skills in the new environment.

An important question, often left unaddressed in this discourse is the role evangelical and proselytizing groups in the resettlement process. These groups often work alongside the resettlement agencies, stepping in to fill the gaps in the system, which the resettlement agencies are unable to meet. The unequal power relations of culture, social and economic status and perceptions of religion, combined with the burden of obligation, also contributes to the process of racial stereotyping.

During the initial phase, the reality of ‘the business of living’ has overshadowed the political aspects of their cause. A plethora of community organizations have mushroomed in the U.S.A. Many are cautious about the perception of any political activity/allegiance. For those who were born in Bhutan and were young adults in the camps, the frustrations, downward mobility and rigors of life in the U.S. are more real. Given the reality of geo-political interests in the region, these aspirants might well find themselves as pawns in the larger power politics of South Asia.

The Bhutanese refugee networks, by way of online forums, news agencies and communication have also given rise to a vibrant discourse on the issues that concern the refugees. Increasingly these networks have allowed the Bhutanese refugees to take ownership, and become active participants on the questions and narratives of their identity, belonging and citizenship.

The unequal power structures in the resettlement system, will offer complex challenges for the Bhutanese refugees straddling the thin line between ‘orientation’ and ‘assimilation’. For the Nepali-Bhutanese, the flight from southern Bhutan challenging the State’s ‘invisible’ and ‘unwritten’ legacy might seem to end in a distant geographical arc with this resettlement process. However, the important question would be, whether this would quench their quest for a stable and undisputed identity or not? Or will it remain as Trishanku’s heaven?

Notes and References

1 Interviews with refugee youth in Beldangi I, II, III and Goldhap, April-May 2001. Follow up interviews from 2009 till the present. See also, Sreeja C T, Ethnicity in South Asia: A Study of the Nepali-Bhutanese Refugees, Unpublished Doctoral Thesis submitted to the University of Hyderabad, India, 2006.
2 The Core Working Group was formed in 2005. It consisted of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, Norway and U.S.A. The European Commission was an observer. The aim, was to ensure that Bhutan and Nepal work together towards a comprehensive solution to the refugee problem.
3 Interviews with Balaram Poudel, R K Dorji, 23 July 2011, Kathmandu. Interview with Tek Nath Rizal, 25 July 2011, Kathmandu and Dr. Bhampa Rai, 6 August 2011, Damak. Interview with a cross-section of refugees from the Camps of Beldangi-I,II, nd III, Timai, Sanischare, and refugees from the Goldhap The camp was relocated into Beldangi in July-August, 2011 Nepal.
4 In the wake of 9/11, the US and the western countries were reluctant to accept refugees from the Middle East. In order to fulfill their refugee quotas, these countries focused on the largely Hindu, Buddhist (and increasingly Christian) Bhutanese refugees. See also, Susan Banki’s analysis, Resettlement of the Bhutanese from Nepal: The Durable Solution Discourse, in Howard Adelman, ed., Protracted Displacement in Asia: No Place to Call Home [Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2008], p.49. Apart from that this is based on interviews with Bhutanese Refugees since 2006, Nepalese journalists from July to August 2011 and refugee leaders on July 2011 in Kathmandu.
5 From the standpoint of the refugees, the less-than-straightforward process of advocacy for re-settlement encompassed various incidents in the camps that brought the re-settlement option to the forefront, to serve the ‘vested interests’ in the refugee community, the relief agencies themselves, the governments of Bhutan and Nepal, and the Core Working Group. This is based on series of interviews with Bhutanese Refugees since 2006. Apart from that I have also interviewed Nepalese journalists (July –August 2011, Nepal), and refugee leaders in Kathmandu (July 2011). Interview with Beldangi-I, II and III refugees, July 2011. See also Susan Banki, pp.48-49. See also Shiva Dhungana, Refugee Watch.
6 UNHCR figures provided by the UNHCR Office, Kathmandu Nepal. July 2011.
8 Guglielmo Schininà, Sonali Sharma, Olga Gorbacheva, Anit Kumar Mishra, Who am I? : Assessment Of Psychosocial Needs And Suicide Risk Factors Among Bhutanese Refugees In Nepal And After Third Country Resettlement, IOM Migration Health Division Mental Health, Psychosocial Response and Intercultural Communication Section and Mission in Nepal, 201. Accessed at:
9 Ibid, p.7
10 R.K. Papdopoulos (2002) Refugees, home and trauma. In 'Therapeutic Care for Refugees.
No Place Like Home', edited by author. London: Karnac. Tavistock Clinic Series quoted in Ibid, p.5
11 For example Bhutanese refugees re-settled in Pennsylvania and North Carolina work in these factories. Bhutanese refugees also travel from Virginia to work in these factories. For example in Central VA, semi-skilled refugees (different age groups) have also been employed in wood factories, farms and seasonal jobs.
12 List of National Volunteer Agencies, known as VOLAGs and their affiliated agencies which work with the State. Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugee and Migration’s, Reception and Placement Program, are given here: