The Himalayan Refugee Crisis That May Soon Be Resolved

BELDANGI, NEPAL - MARCH 14: A Bhutanese refugee cooks dinner inside their home's kitchen in the Beldangi 2 refugee camp on March 14, 2015 in Beldangi, Nepal. More than 22,000 Bhutanese refugees still reside in the refugee camps set up in Nepal in the 1990s, after hundreds of thousands of Bhutanese fled the country following a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Bhutanese Government against the country's ethnic Nepali population. After more than 20 years in Nepal, over 90% of the refugees have been successfully resettled in third countries, thanks to programs by UNHCR and IOM. Those remaining the camps are supported by several organizations that undertake a wide variety of projects. Helped by remittances sent back to Nepal by families already resettled in other countries, the refugees still in the camps have set up their own small businesses in the camps and the roads near them, roads which are also replete with Nepali-owned businesses who benefit directly from the refugees that are still waiting in Nepal to be resettled in third countries.

Source Omar Havana/Getty

Why you should care

Because this is one refugee crisis that may soon be “resolved.”

Welcome to the Himalayas — home to the world’s tallest mountains, centuries-old Buddhist temples, stone towns perched on vertigo-inducing peaks … and refugee camps. Yes, besides being a stunning country, Nepal has been, since the ’90s, home of last resort for more than 100,000 refugees from the neighboring kingdom of Bhutan.

This may come as a shock to those who know Buthan as the otherworldly, almost mythical land that measures its wealth using the Gross National Happiness Index, where the forests are strictly protected and the sale of tobacco is banned. But before this tiny nation came to be known as “the world’s happiest country,” it forced one in six of all its citizens to flee.

Back in the ’90s, the country saw growing tensions between the ethnically Bhutanese majority and the Lhotshampa, people of Nepali origins who lived mainly in the south. As a response to the political agitation in the Lhotshampa community, the government imposed what was called the “One Nation, One People” policy. This only aggravated Nepalis further, and anti-government protests soon turned into a violent opposition that included bombings, extortions and kidnappings. The government’s answer was draconian: deport them all.

So for the past 25 years, most of the Lhotshampa refugees have lived in camps in Nepal, hurdled in narrow rows of homes made of tin with no running water or electricity. Their home country has made strides toward democratization since the times of the inter-ethnic conflict, but it continues to forbid their return. “The government simply won’t admit to what it did after all these years,” says Michael J Hutt, professor of Nepali and Himalayan Studies at SOAS in London.

So after decades in limbo on the roof of the world, the international community finally decided to step in and give the Lhotshampa refugees a chance to start anew in eight Western countries including the U.S. In the past decade, 98,036 refugees have left the camps. Today, fewer than 10,000 remain, and six of the seven original camps have been dismantled.

Fantastic news, right? Can we stop reading now? Well, not so fast. While resettlement to developed nations is certainly better than living in refugee camps, trading the green Himalayan hills for the loud streets of Pittsburgh can be soul-wrecking. A report by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a very high rate of depression and suicide among resettled refugees in the U.S. Julia Rendleman, a photojournalist who has reported on the issue in Nepal and America, explains that “not speaking the language alone can be extremely isolating.”

Meanwhile, there are some refugees who can’t leave because they fell through the administrative cracks and don’t have the right documents. Others refuse to go for fear of being separated from their families in Bhutan — because the country still has a very disenfranchised minority of citizens from Nepali origins living in the south.

And last but not least, there is the question of justice. Even if all Bhutanese refugees find a new home, will their government ever be held accountable for what Human Rights Watch described as “ethnic cleansing”? It’s not likely, says Hutt. “Now it’s just a historical detail. They have gotten away with it. ”





Numbers and factoids — fodder for your next cocktail party.