Older generation want to go home; the younger are seeking a new life in the west.
- Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 15 June 2010 14.00 BST
“Look how happy we used to be,” says Harka Jung Subba, pointing to a family photograph hanging on the wall of his hut. It shows him, his wife and their six sons and daughters when the family still lived in Bhutan, more than 20 years ago.
In 1990 they were forced to flee because of persecution of ethnic Nepalis. Harka thought they would be away only long enough for things to settle down again. But Harka and more than 100,000 other Bhutanese refugees have been living in refugee camps in Nepal ever since.
His son, Ram Kumar, seen in the family photo as a boy, moved to the US last year with his wife and his own two children as part of a UN resettlement programme. Fearful that his father would not give his consent to let him go (the UNHCR requires all members of a household to attend the verification interview), Ram, now 33, left with his mother’s blessing, while Harka was in India lobbying politicians and rights activists to pressure Bhutan’s government for repatriation.
“My son, who grew up in my arms, left without saying goodbye. I am sure I will never see him again,” Harka says. His other sons are now also pushing him to let them leave the camp.
For the younger generations, who have lived in the camps all their lives, reliant on handouts as they are forbidden by law to work, the resettlement programme is their only way out. But the older refugees have no desire to move away from their community to a foreign country with an alien culture and a language they will never learn.
Harka, 68, admits he is fighting a losing battle against his grown-up sons. So far resettlement has been the only solution offered. In 2006, following 15 rounds of failed bilateral negotiations between the Bhutanese and Nepali governments, Washington offered an alternative: moving to America. Within a year more than 25,000 refugees had applied for resettlement in the US, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands. A further 15,000 are expected to be resettled by the end of this year, while 50,000 more have registered.
Harka was one of the first 100 refugees to arrive in Damak, one of the six settlements in Jhapa district in south-eastern Nepal. He says they had a good life in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, where he was a government official and owned a large farm. But in 1989, threatened by the prosperous Hindu Nepali-speaking minority, the government imposed a policy of Bhutanisation. Under the policy “one nation, one people”, only Buddhism, Bhutan’s main religion, could be practiced, while a Bhutanese dress code, culture and language was enforced. Many of the ethnic Nepalese had their land confiscated and were stripped of their citizenship.
Harka says he protested against the arrest of some key Bhutanese democratic leaders. Afterwards he was threatened by government officials, including members of the army. He fled. The army seized his house. Harka and his family lived in Tsirang district, in south Bhutan, a fertile area, in the foothills of the Himalayas, lush and green. Farmers grow rice, maize and millet, while major cash crops include oranges, mandarins and cardamom.
Now Harka’s home is a two-room hut. With mud floor, bamboo walls and roof, it can barely fit two beds so the family take it in turns to sleep on the floor. The camp has no electricity and the sanitation system is poor. There isn’t enough water and Harka says they have no access to newspapers or television. In the dry summer temperatures can reach 45C, with accidental fires, while in the monsoon low-lying Damak is vulnerable to flash floods. In the winter the walls do little to keep out the cold and fog.
Harka and fellow refugees, such as Maniraj Lama, 60, long to return to their old lives. “We have waited this long and we still can wait to go home,” Maniraj says. But Sandeep Bhattarai, 23, doesn’t remember Bhutan. His father refuses to give him permission to leave. “I still have the ability to start something new,” he says. “I don’t want to grow up as an old refugee and suffer like my parents. I have to think of myself and my younger sisters.”
Sandeep works as a volunteer in a school in the camp for a small allowance. He says most of his friends are now school graduates or have finished college and are pursuing further studies. Sandeep explains that the rules about not working are not strictly adhered to; however, high unemployment means there are very few jobs and even if they get a job, they get paid less than a Nepali would.
Jiten Subba, a Bhutanese journalist in exile in Nepal, says the resettlement helped to reduce the violence, crimes and insecurity among the frustrated youth as many started to concentrate on improving their skills. But for every success story that filters back from resettled refugees, there are stories of hardship and isolation.
Another Bhutanese journalist, Thakur Prasad Mishra, 24, grew up in the refugee camps in Nepal and moved to New York as part of the resettlement programme in July last year. He explains that most of the older refugees who have resettled suffer from depression. “The elderly mostly stay inside their apartments as they have no idea how to use the public transport. They even require someone to guide them to visit a nearby hospital.”
Mishra does believe that life is still better in a new country than in the refugee camp, but he warns that elderly people with no children are better off staying behind.
The UNHCR says it continues to advocate for voluntary repatriation to Bhutan. But for now that road seems to be a dead end.
Harka sums up the feelings of many of the older refugees when he says emphatically: “I would rather hang myself and die here in the camp than follow my children to a new country.” This is not a throwaway line. Suicide rates are high in the camp as many refugees suffer from depression. Maniraj Lama’s wife hanged herself one day while he went out for a walk. It has made him more determined than ever to get back to Bhutan.
In the meantime, Harka worries that more young people will leave, abandoning their elders. “The rift between the old and young generation is worsening,” he says. “There is bad blood between the old parents and their children.”
The photograph on his wall reminds him of what he has to lose as well as what he has already lost.