Is UNHCR creating malnutrition in refugee camps in Nepal?


A few days ago prominent members of the Bhutanese Refugee Community in Nepal wrote a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in that country. The letter is a request to discuss maltreatment by the UNHCR regarding the refugees they are supposed to take care of.

What is happening?
Since early 1990s the UNHCR has managed and maintained a number of refugee camps in eastern Nepal (more exact, in the Jhapa and Morang districts). At its height, there were over 107,000 refugees listed in those camps. Since 2008 UNHCR has started the by far largest third country resettlement program ever aiming at completely solving the decades long refugee crisis of the Bhutanese who were forcefully exiled from their Shangri-La like country in the Himalayas.

The UNHCR has done a tremendous job in guarding peace in those camps while at the same time bringing essential humanitarian aid to the inhabitants. Nepal (just like India and Bhutan) never signed the UN refugee treaty, so the UNHCR has been working there on a UN mandate. It has been partnering with AMDA (Asian Medical Doctors Association) for health care, Caritas for education, Lutheran World Federation for camp management and monitoring and the World Food Program (WFP) for food distribution to the camp communities that have no other means of existence.

But, the things have changed. The aim of UNHCR in Nepal seems to have shifted in the past few years from caring for the refugees who are living in limbo in the camps to bringing a durable solution to their situation by third country resettlement. According to the international morale of refugees, people should repatriate but that has obviously proven to be an impossible dream. As Bhutan, the country of Gross National Happiness (GNH), has been frustrating talks and efforts for that ever since the crisis started in 1991. Assimilation in the Nepalese and Indian society is also a no go as Nepal and India do not accept that (the lack the resources to do that on a humanitarian responsible manner), hence the durable solution of the UNHCR stood to be – resettling those refugees in the third countries.

This resettlement project is well underway with almost two thirds of the refugees already resettled to mainly the US and countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands and the UK. But there are fears that not all refugees will resettle. After all it is an opt-in project and not all refugees desire a life in a completely alien western society ultimately losing their history, religion and way of life in due time. Some 10,000 refugees have not opted for resettlement. Let alone the other more than 4,000 (based on a headcount by camp management in 2011 and has decreased to a yet unknown figure) refugees that have not been registered as refugees for a variety of reasons. They do however live in those camps without food, healthcare and proper housing.

Therefore, something needs to happen. Recently the UNHCR has announced that they can no longer provide vegetables to the refugees, taking out an important element in their diet, which is by no means extensive. The effects of not supplying vegetables as of January 2013 will no doubt be deteriorating already underlined health situation of the refugees in the coming years. The reason the UNHCR has given is that they lack a proper budget for this essential food. Which is very strange as the European Union has provided for a over 3 million Euro budget for the UNHCR for the years 2012, 2013 and 2014, continuing the financing of the UNHCR’s operation in regard to those camps. So what is happening?

Letter to the UNHCR by refugees’ leaders and seniors

According to the Beldangi Camp Secretary, Dhan Bir Subba, (Beldangi is the largest of the two remaining camps), the UN has informed them that the budget is redistributed by the UNHCR to other refugee crisis areas in the world. Basically stating that they simply do no longer see a priority in maintaining proper support to the Bhutanese refugees still living in the camps in Nepal. Which, of course, is an extra push to get the refugees to the point that they will opt for resettlement. So is this argument used by the UNHCR just a trick to reach a ‘durable solution’ by increasing pressure on the refugee community to resettle completely? And if so, is that ethical?

According to Subba, the UNHCR has declared that they have no other option than to decrease the available budget for the Bhutanese exiles in the camps, a ‘Hopson’s choice’ so to speak. The UNHCR has also declared that they will distribute vegetable seeds as an alternative, but as the remaining camps are heavily populated, the availability of enough land to grow crops is a question that remains. The UNHCR seems to have suggested using the empty huts of resettles for that purpose.

The chairman of the Bhutanese Refugee Representative Repatriation Committee(BRRRC), Dr Bhampa Rai, who I  met during my visit to the refugee camps in the past year, had the privilege to interview a number of times concerning the situation of the refugees, has repeatedly  condemned the UNHCR decision in relation to most of the minimum basic needs of the refugees, especially women and children. And by all means, the timeline between announcing and stopping vegetable distribution is just over a month, making it impossible for the refugees to grow enough crops for a healthy nutrition, seems irresponsible.

“The decision has created doubts on UNHCR’s intention towards refugees. How can those who themselves survive on delicious vegetables on daily basis decide to stop the supply of the same items for us,” Dr Rai said according to the Bhutan News Service.

The question that resounds this time is, whether UNHCR is going to a stage in promoting resettlement to the refugees by disregarding basic human rights like proper nutrition. And that is not all. The Bhutanese refugees feel that they are pressurized by the UNHCR to resettle, which means that they doubt whether they really have a free choice NOT to resettle but continue hoping for repatriation to their motherland.

Apart from the other issues mentioned in the request written by major community leaders to the UNHCR, the nutrition issue is a very serious decline in the basic care for the refugees and frustrates the mandate of the UNHCR itself. The monthly supply of (only) 500 grams of seasonal vegetables is ending this month. The diet of refugees in the camps will lack one of its important components and is for health reasons undesirable.

It is worrying that the UNHCR is also forbidding the refugee leaders to bring their complaints to the VIPs who visit the camps. From personal experience working as a journalist in the camps I do know that some issues (like the large number of unregistered refugees, the deteriorating education in the camps and the mounting crime like identity fraud and even institutionalized fraud) are being kept under the radar. Freedom of press and freedom of speech are just as much at stake as the basic human rights of the camp population.

It seems that the UNHCR is building pressure to end the Bhutanese refugee crisis and is not stepping away from methods that should be doubted and discussed on an international level and especially at the European Union, being the main financier of the UNHCR in Nepal.

Meanwhile, the malnutrition is something that the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal should fear. The reality of life in the UNHCR managed refugee camps in Nepal is that things are not at all nice and dandy and in fact seem to become worse. But will the international community respond to that?

(The writer is a Dutch writer/filmmaker/journalist advocating human rights in general and highlighting the Bhutanese issue in particular, and blogs at, from where the article has been reproduced with some revisions.)


  1. Alice
    You have brought up this issue so timely. For sure, this shall draw the attention of UNHCR at Kathmandu. UNHCR, then look into the decision keeping in mind the unseen health problems that may follow especially in Women and children. UNHCR and AMDA very well know the existing health situation of women and children in the camp. At the cost of health conditions of such a mass UN Agency should not make such decision in haste. Lets hope for the best.

    Pittsburgh Pa