A refugee camp divided


Subash Archaya thought he had escaped persecution for good when he left southern Bhutan in the early 1990’s. Harassed by the government and threatened by police, he joined the growing population of ethnically-Nepali Bhutanese citizens fleeing to refugee camps in eastern Nepal. After 18 years of living in exile, Archaya says the same types of threats that drove him to leave Bhutan have surfaced again, but this time they are from his fellow refugees.

“It started with texts,” he explains, holding up a mobile phone in the dim light of his hut. “Plz donot try 2 share these 2 police,” the screen reads.

Through several anonymous messages, Archaya is warned that his family will be in danger if they don’t leave the refugee camp immediately. His wife, holding their 15 month old daughter, unfolds a crumpled piece of paper; a hand written note again threatening violence if they stay in the camp.

With no place to go, Archaya has relocated his family to a security village in Beldangi I camp; a refuge within a refugee camp where armed guards and a tangled fence of barbed wire provide 24-hour protection and isolation. Archaya hasn’t left the tiny plot of land for several months.

Although the family doesn’t know exactly who sent the threatening messages, they do know why. “I support the resettlement program,” Archaya says, “But there are still some in the camps who oppose it.”

Subash Acharya/Photo by writer

For the majority of their time in exile, Bhutanese refugees hoped to return to Bhutan as citizens, a process known as repatriation. In 2007, the U.N. and the United States offered an alternative solution by initiating a third country resettlement program. While many Bhutanese welcomed the opportunity to start new lives abroad, there was a significant portion of the population who viewed resettlement as a victory for the Bhutanese government. In their opinion, people would stop fighting to return to Bhutan if they moved to western countries, a fatal blow to the repatriation movement.

By mid-2007 the camps were divided over the issue, and tensions boiled over into violence.

“I used to be Camp Secretary of Beldangi II camp,” Archaya explains, “Because of my leadership position, a lot of people were looking to see if I would stay or if I would decide to resettle.” When word spread that he wanted to resettle, threats began to appear.

Repatriation has been a top priority for the exiled Bhutanese since they first fled to Nepal, but every organized attempt to return home has been met with failure.

As early as 1996, a rally was staged in which hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the Nepali border town of Kakarbhitta in an attempt to enter India and then Bhutan, but several activists were arrested by Indian security officers and the rally dissipated.

More recently, in May of 2007, a ‘Long March Home’ was organized in which tens of thousands of exiled Bhutanese attempted to walk from the camps in Nepal, across India, and back to Bhutan. The marchers were again met by Indian security officers at the Nepali border, where several guards opened fire on the crowd of demonstrators, killing two.

These early attempts to return to Bhutan show the committment that many refugees had to repatriation. For a long time, it was their only hope.

But resettlement changed everything. Although it created hope and excitement for many refugees, especially the young and educated, it also amplified the frustration of repatriation advocates. In an effort to counter the resettlement movement, many pro-repatriation groups evolved into underground political parties, some with militant tendencies like the Liberation Army of Bhutan (LAB), Druk Leapord, and the United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan (URFB).

It is groups like these that Archaya and his family fear, and it was these groups that initiated inter-camp violence, beginning in 2007. Early that year, two young refugees died in a clash with an underground political party. The same week, a refugee leader was beat-up and his hut destroyed because he supported resettlement.

In the days after, a news release from the Refugee Policy director at Human Rights Watch, Bill Frelick, warned that, “Nepali police need to protect the Bhutanese refugees and their right to peacefully express their views on resettlement or return.”

Despite many more pleas for increased security in the camps, violence continued, culminating in 2009 with the deaths of two Camp Secretaries (the same position that Archaya held). KB Khadka was stabbed to death on his way home one evening in April, while Shanti Ram Nepal was shot four times by an unidentified gunman later the same year.

Yet as the number of Bhutanese resettling has increased, the cases of violence have tended to decrease. By mid-2010, nearly 80% of refugees either already moved abroad, or expressed interest in doing so.

As is often the case, families still in the camps will hear good news from their already-resettled relatives, persuading them to make the leap and file their own case for resettlement. Repatriation groups are losing the hearts and the minds of the remaining refugees. After 18 years of camp life, the pull to resettle is strong.

Dr. Bampa Rai is a Bhutanese refugee and a doctor by profession, but he is more renown as a leader of the repatriation movement. Since the early 90’s, he has run a health clinic for refugees near the camps while also peacefully advocating for repatriation through legitimate organizations like the Bhutanese Refugee Repatriation Representatives Committee.

But even he admits that “The sun is setting on repatriation.” Rai does not condone violence or intimidation, but he does believe that the cause of repatriation has been marginalized in favor of resettlement.

“The UNHCR has been advocating resettlement in every camp for years now,” he explains, referring to the various information meetings, English classes, and cultural orientation programs sponsored by the U.N. that are aimed at recruiting and preparing refugees for resettlement.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to the UNHCR, but for 18 years people were never given hope of repatriation by the UNHCR; not a single meeting,” he says. Now he believes resettlement will completely deflate the cause for repatriation, and, he claims, it already has begun.

Indeed, many refugees argue that violence and intimidation have all but disappeared from the camps. Now it seems that most everyone is looking forward to moving to new homes in the West. While Archaya insists that the underground groups continue to operate today and threats still exist, he also looks forward to resettlement.

“I am Bhutanese, but my future is in the United States,” he says, “So we spend our time waiting for resettlement; it is our only hope.”

Benjamin Graham is a freelance journalist based in New York City but frequently reports on Nepal and Bhutan. His work can be viewed at http://benjamingraham1.blogspot.com/