Nepali Times
Only one way home


Fourteen years after makeshift huts were first put up here to house tens of thousands of Bhutani refugees streaming into Nepal, the Beldangi camp has turned into a small city of 53,000 people.

Many of the young boys and girls were born here and know about their homeland only from school books and family lore. Yet, ask them about the latest international plan to resettle them in third countries or to assimilate them in Nepal and they leave you in no doubt about what they want- they want to go home.

The children learn Dzongkha, Bhutani georgraphy and history in school and when they say "king" they still mean King Jigme Singye Wangchuk. Maya Gurung has been hearing stories since she was a child about the motherland she has never seen. Still, she says she wants to go back to Bhutan and become a nurse. Eighteen-year-old Purnima Karki longs to return to Bhutan and find a job for herself and six younger brothers and sisters who were born in the camp. Maitraj Subba wants to return to Bhutan even though he has heard of the regime's atrocities in torturing and evicting his grandfather, Santaraj Subba.

In an effort to end the deadlock on repatriation, western governments, led by Canada and the United States, have proposed that once Bhutan takes back a portion of the refugees the rest could be resettled in Nepal or in western countries. But in recent interviews in Beldangi it was hard to find even one person who would choose resettlement.

"This camp has been our home in the past years, we are grateful that Nepal provided us with shelter," says Bholanath Uprety, a refugee leader in Beldangi, "but it is Bhutan where our heart belongs, there is no alternative to sending us back."

Uprety says the Bhutani regime has lobbied hard to get refugees like him resettled in other countries and take back only a handful, and he blames the international community for caving into Bhutani pressure. Deb Raj Pradhan, secretary at Beldangi II, agrees: "We want to be resettled in Bhutan, that is the only option we wish for. We will not consider third country resettlement or integration in Nepal."

Pradhan and Uprety also think India can play a key role since they were transported through Indian territory in hired Indian trucks after eviction from Bhutan 14 years ago. "When India stops refugees at its border, can one deny India's involvement?" asks Pradhan, adding, "India holds the key to the resolution of the Bhutan crisis."

For the moment, however, there are other pressing issues like food, shelter and schooling. The budget for clothes was slashed three years ago, donors are now cutting back supplies of basic amenities such as kerosene, foodstuff, bamboo and health care. The huts are in dire need of repair and the roofs leak.

Bhutan-Nepal border

Bhutan and Nepal don't share a contiguous border but the gates of Beldangi feel like a frontier.

Inside Beldangi, you are in Bhutan. Outside the camp gates, it is Nepal with all its problems. Jhapa locals outside the gates say life has never been the same after the camps were set up in 1992.

While the local economy has benefited, there has been a rise in crime and prostitution, says ex-mayor of Damak, Ram Thapa. Refugees also stream out of the camps every day and edge out locals as a source of cheap labour.

"Refugee activity has hampered the overall development process of the municipality," says Thapa. "The pressure on the forest has increased, and there is less fodder for us."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)