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On Assignment: Southeast Nepal

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

In late January 2008 Mitzi Schroeder, JRS/USA Policy Director, traveled to southeast Nepal to meet with JRS staff and the refugee community there regarding US plans for the resettlement of Bhutanese refugees.  Mitzi described her visit as follows:


Arriving in the eastern city of Biratnagar on a small plane from Kathmandu, I anxiously scanned the crowd meeting passengers for the sight of the JRS staff member who would be meeting me.


At last the JRS truck entered the airport parking lot, and my hosts apologetically told me that their arrival had been delayed by roadblocks set up as part of a local protest over the increasing price of fuel and other grievances against the government. It took nearly two hours to make the forty-five minute drive back to JRS Nepal headquarters in Damak, winding among back roads to avoid the protesters. I was to learn that frequent civil unrest, intermittent  power outages, fuel shortages and even collapsed bridges all contribute to the challenges of operating refugee assistance and education programs for the 107,000 Bhutanese in Nepal, one of the world's poorest countries – challenges taken as a normal part of life by our determined and infinitely patient JRS staff.


Now, however, a new challenge has been added to JRS's mission to accompany, serve, and defend the rights of the Bhutanese refugees.  After seventeen years of exile in Nepal, during which all diplomatic efforts to return the Bhutanese refugees to their homeland have failed, the Bhutanese refugees have been offered resettlement in the United States and other countries. 


This offer has split the community, with many refugees accepting the offer with enthusiasm but some fearing that their chances of eventual return home will be jeopardized by acceptance of this alternative. Since last spring, anti-resettlement elements have waged a campaign of intimidation and misinformation, sometimes resorting to violence against pro-resettlement leaders. Feeling that accurate information would help the many refugees confused about resettlement to make an informed decision, JRS Nepal had invited me to visit the camps and answer their questions. For the next several days, I would meet with camp administrators, women's organizations, teachers, and the general community to discuss their concerns.


During my tours of the camps, I was filled with admiration for the way in which the refugees have organized themselves to meet the needs of their community. In comparison to many other refugee camps I have visited, there is a surprising lack of international presence in the Bhutanese camps. Camp administration is carried out by Camp Management Committees composed of the refugees themselves, with half of the positions occupied by women. Refugees carry out such functions as food distribution and provide the teaching staff for JRS schools, receiving only a small "incentive" payment as return for dedicated volunteer service. All of the younger refugees – thanks to education provided by JRS – have learned to speak English, and a few have even managed to get scholarships to local collages. With resources from the few international organizations that do supply the camps, the refugees manufacture cloth and soap for local consumption, repair bicycles and motorcycles, grow small vegetable plots and keep their houses scrupulously clean.


Perhaps it is this appearance of self-sufficiency that has encouraged international NGOs and institutions to cut back on assistance to the Bhutanese year after year.  Perhaps it is just that international resources are stretched thin that there is always a newer crisis competing with older ones for resources. The unfortunate truth is that despite the hum of activity in the camps, the Bhutanese community is stretched thin. Year after year, NGOs have one by one withdrawn their support from the camps, and international institutions have steadily cut rations, failed to repair sagging housing, ceased to provide children's clothing, and withdrawn kerosene supplies, condemning the camps to twelve hours of darkness every night. Caught between a homeland that does not want them and a host country that has too many problems of its own, the everyday needs of the Bhutanese community are in danger of being forgotten. In this context, the offer of resettlement comes just in time.


The Bhutanese now must make a choice as to whether to grasp this opportunity. Can it be a truly free choice when no other route to survival seems possible?  Perhaps not wholly. But it can be an informed choice, a choice made of the basis of accurate information and after due consideration, a choice made in well-grounded hope.  The Bhutanese refugee community, having retained its dignity and identity under such difficult conditions for so many years, deserves no less.