Earlier this month, a group of Bhutanese refugees arrived at Schiphol after a long journey that brought them from the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal to their new home in The Netherlands. One of the first to greet them at the airport was Ram Chhetri, a fellow Bhutanese who made the same journey in 2002. He has been living in the Netherlands ever since and besides being an active member of the Bhutanese community and advocating human rights for the Bhutanese he has been running a restaurant named ‘Himalayan’ in the centre of The Hague. Marnix van der Beek from Global Human Rights Defence met up with Mr. Chhetri in his restaurant and spoke to him about integration, the Bhutanese living in exile and the recently founded Bhutanese Advocacy Forum.
GHRD: You seem to have integrated into the Dutch society very well, you have your own restaurant, you speak Dutch and you recently received your Dutch passport. What advice would you give to your fellow Bhutanese who are arriving in the Netherlands, in terms of integration?
Karki: Well I have met with almost all the Bhutanese who are brought to the Netherlands for the resettlement programme and the suggestion or advice I would give to them is to concentrate more on the language, the Dutch language and to interact more with the Dutch society. Make friends with the Dutch people, go to their homes and bring them to your homes and offer tea or coffee, go out onto the market and speak Dutch.
And above all, to find volunteer work, “vrijwilligerswerk”. Instead of staying at home all the time. I advice them to ask the local authorities to provide them with voluntary work so they can interact with the Dutch people. That is the best way to integrate in a society.
GHRD: In your experience, do the Dutch people know anything about Bhutan or the situation for the refugees, are they aware of these issues?
Karki: No they are not aware of that. The first group of Bhutanese refugees who resettled in The Netherlands were given a place to live in Friesland. Two families, my brothers, were given houses there to live. So what happened, one day somebody threw a stone at my brother’s windows. So what I did was make an appointment with the mayor. And I took my brothers to her and we talked about this problem that somebody was throwing stones and that people were suspicious of us and that we were scared to live there. And what the mayor told us was to make an appointment with a journalist. And I even suggested to her to send a local journalist to their homes and write down in the local newspapers about them; who are they? why did they come to the Netherlands? what kind of people are they? what do they eat? what is their religion? Anything!
So they published their story with pictures and all the descriptions that they came from Bhutan and that they were the victims of human rights violations. That they were brought to the Netherlands by the Dutch government and they didn’t come by themselves. So then the people started reading about their history. Nowadays they are feeling very comfortable, all the villagers come to their home, they put flowers, they decorate their house. And the children will take the children to their homes.
GHRD: In general, how are the Bhutanese doing in terms of integration and learning the language?
Karki: Well the Bhutanese resettlement has just started one and a half years back. So all the Bhutanese refugees were tired after living in the refugee camps for 20 years, they were tense and mentally depressed. So now they are just starting their lives, so they haven’t started founding jobs yet. They have just started adapting to their new environment.
GHRD: Are you optimistic for the future? Do you think the Bhutanese will be able to integrate well?
Karki: Yes, quite a few of them have started the ‘taalexamen 2’ which is the highest level of Dutch language course, to get admission into the universities. So 5 or 6 of the Bhutanese refugees are doing that exam, to go for the higher studies and they are doing fine.
GHRD: You are involved in the recently founded Bhutanese Advocacy Forum, (BAF) could you tell us how this forum was established?
Karki: Last year in the first weeks of December, there was a demonstration in Geneva. And the Bhutanese refugees from around Europe, altogether 16 of them were gathered in Geneva in front of the United Nations office to protest the false human rights report presented to the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council by the Bhutanese government. We had a lot of appointments, but every time we go the appointments we are going as individual Bhutanese refugees. That made us quite uneasy, because everywhere we go they ask for visiting card, our designation, which organization we are representing. So we were in an embarrassing situation most of the time and our appointments didn’t bear any good fruits. So on the fourth of December 2009 in a hotel room in Geneva we organized a meeting and in the meeting we decided to form a loose human rights forum. That forum is very loose, it constitutes around few refugees, who are like-minded, who wanted to do advocacy work from Europe on a voluntary basis. Our main goal is to advocate the human rights and justice for the Bhutanese people living in Bhutan. Because Europe is such a strategic location for Bhutan with the EU, the UN in Geneva, the Netherlands’ government, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, these are the main funding countries of Bhutan, the main developmental partners of Bhutan. So we are here so we could at least advocate for the human rights in Bhutan with these governments, so then those governments will put human rights conditions to Bhutan before they provide any funding.
GHRD: What is the position of the BAF on the UNHCR resettlement programme?
Karki: We want the resettlement programme to go as fast as possible at this moment. We do not want to comment anymore on repatriation. Because the people that have been living in the camps since 1991 are tired. They are living in a very miserable condition for two decades. So we don’t want them to stay in the same situation. That is why we don’t advocate for the repatriation of the Bhutanese refugees to Bhutan. But our concern is: let the resettlement procedure go in the same way as now, as smoothly as possible.
GHRD: And about the human rights situation in Bhutan itself, what do you think the BAF can achieve?
Karki: We don’t have very big ends and objectives, we are just a forum to advocate for human rights and justice in Bhutan by living in Europe. So our objective is to raise awareness in Europe about the discrimination and injustice done to the Southern Bhutanese, to the Eastern Bhutanese and to the Bhutanese in general by the government of Bhutan. And we want to raise awareness among the European governments and the people that the democracy that has been introduced now in Bhutan is not a real democracy it is not inclusive. More than 80.000 people who are living in the south, who are the relatives of the refugees were not given the right to vote in the last 2008 election. So their rights have been grossly violated and if we don’t advocate strongly for them then maybe one day or another they will be thrown out of the country like they did to us.