Separated by Resettlement


Devika Pradhan rises early each morning to stoke the open flame of her cooking fire, boiling enough tea for her three grown children still asleep in the next room of their bamboo hut.

8,000 miles away in Carl City, Minnesota—literally the other side of the world—her fourth child Jeeban, 22, rolls out of bed around the same time, microwaves an old cup of coffee, and catches a city bus from his apartment to the restaurant where he works.

Nearly 20 years ago, Devika, Jeeban, and the rest of their family, alongside 105,000 other Bhutanese refugees, fled their homes in southern Bhutan to seek refuge in the jungles of eastern Nepal. At the time, the growing population of southern Bhutanese, who are mostly Hindu and of Nepali origin, was viewed by the Bhutanese Government as a threat to the nation’s traditionally Buddhist society. Using threats, imprisonment, and torture, the Bhutanese regime coerced the refugees into leaving.

In 1992, after the mass exodus, the refugees were organized into seven refugee camps by the UNHCR. The Bhutanese lived with little hope of a solution until 2006. It was then that the UNHCR, in collaboration with several western nations, initiated third country resettlement program with the goal of giving new lives to all interested refugees in participating countries.

Devika’s son Jeeban was the first from their family to take part in the program, which has already moved 37,000 plus Bhutanese to new homes in the west, 30,000 in the United States alone. This first wave of resettled refugees has passed the message along to those still in the camps that resettlement is tough, but its better.

Jeeban called his mother at least once a week from his apartment in Minnesota. “He always tells us to come quickly; that life is better in the US,” says Devika. She imagined her son’s life is pretty simple in the US; watching TV, working hard, and continuing to eat rice two times a day.

But the refugees still in the camps rarely hear the details about resettled life. Many of them can’t name the exact job that their relatives are working abroad or what the living conditions are like. Often times the employment available to refugees in the west is scant and anything but glamorous, and so relatives are not eager to share the details of their new lives abroad, but rather the generalities—that life is better and that now, finally, there are opportunities.

Arjun readies his luggage, while his mother Devika looks at him, prior a day he left camp. Photo/Author

As a result, the popularity of resettlement has grown wildly, with more than 70% of the remaining refugees expressing interest in leaving camps. While this momentum is positive for the UNHCR overall, the increasing number of Bhutanese filing their cases for resettlement has created a backlog, slowing down the processing.

The result for many has become a waiting game.

Mongali Maya Mongar is a resident of Sanischare camp, but is also the coordinator of a women’s advocacy group (the Bhutanese Refugee Women Forum) that operates in each of the seven camps. “People are always coming to me telling me they are depressed and frustrated because of delays in their cases,” she says, adding, “I applied to go to the US myself but my case has been delayed for months and no one will give me a straight answer as to why.”

The UNHCR holds a daily inquiry session in every camp for people with questions about their cases status. The refugees are able to ask the UNHCR directly about how close they are to being able to resettle, but even the line to ask questions is backlogged. The queue of people runs out of the door and into the streets.

The UNHCR’s official answer for all of the delays, as told by External Relations Assistant Pratibedan Baidhya, is that, “processing requires a lot of verification, there are a lot of security clearances.”

Though not a satisfying answer to a frustrated refugee, the Press Secretary is referring to the specific reasons that cases can be held up, the most common of which is family separation.

Among the Bhutanese communities, especially the communities in exile, family ties are strong. In some cases, family is all a person has. As such, the UNHCR has adopted an unofficial policy in which all families must be kept together while resettling. “It’s not acceptable for an elderly person in a family to be left behind just because he or she doesn’t want to resettle,” says Baidhya.

It is usually the uneducated and elderly refugees who are hesitant to start over in a new country, and often times a family must convince or coerce the whole family into going together. But this is difficult to do if a family member is missing from the camps.

The longevity of the refugee crisis (nearly 18 years) and the lack of employment opportunities for refugees have led many fathers and brothers to leave the camps in search of work to support their families, often landing them in India doing physical labor.

Devika’s husband, Ratan, began leaving home to work in northern India in 1995. Arjun, Devika’s oldest son, says, “Our father would come and leave, and beat us in between, but when he heard about resettlement in 2007, he never came back.” He probably snuck back to Bhutan to live with some remaining relatives, adds Arjun.

Initially this was not a problem, but once resettlement started, many families, like Devika’s, were left stranded. That is why the whole family was happy when Jeeban’s name was called, even though it was only him. At least a part of their family could have a chance at resettlement. So against UNHCR norms, Jeeban left for Minnesota by himself and has been supporting the family through remittances for a year.

Back in the camps, Arjun was busy trying to convince the UNHCR that his father was gone for good and that the rest of his family should be able to move on with their lives and resettle. In August, it finally worked.

With fifty USD sent from Jeeban, Arjun and Devika went on a last minute shopping spree in the town outside of the refugee camp before boarding a plane bound for the US. Though the future of the resettled Bhutanese community remains unknown, Devika isn’t worried about resettling. “If I can’t get a job in housekeeping or child care, I’ll make food for my family. We will be together,” says Devika.

(Ben Graham is a multimedia journalist and his works available at Graham was in Nepal for his study on Bhutanese refugee issue in June – July this year.)