Optimism runs high around the Bhutanese refugee camps in eastern Nepal these days. After 18 years of living in crowded bamboo huts, many refugees are packing their bags, preparing to move to western nations under a refugee resettlement program sponsored by the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR). Those still waiting for their departure date in the camps pass the time by brushing up on their English and discussing which US state has the best job market, but there remains a small contingent of Bhutanese who are a step behind their peers.
A person must first be a registered Bhutanese refugee to be able to resettle, and there are a few, like Karna Bahadur Rai, who are still waiting for the UNHCR to recognize them as refugees.
Like the majority of the 105,000 Bhutanese citizens that fled to Nepal, Karna Rai left southern Bhutan with his family in 1992. Since then, he has spent the majority of his life living in Beldangi-I refugee camp with his wife and son, both of whom have official refugee identification cards administered by the UNHCR. Karna does not.
The label of ‘refugee’ has been a contentious issue since the United Nations defined the term in 1951. Originally designed to classify the millions of people fleeing post-World War II Europe, the term was broadened in 1967 by a UN protocol aimed at incorporating new crises in Latin America and Africa. Today the UNHCR estimates there are roughly 16 million refugees world-wide, all of whom are guaranteed specific rights under the original 1951 agreement. There have been cases in which desperate people pose as refugees in an attempt to flee poor economic situations or gain the protections and services provided to legal refugees. To combat such cases, the UNHCR interviews potential refugees to verify whether they are able to return to their country of origin without fear of persecution.
The UNHCR first conducted interviews for the Bhutanese in 1992, when the vast majority of them arrived in Nepal. Karna Rai was 13 years old at the time.
“My whole family was interviewed, even the little ones,” he said. Each of them were administered a card displaying a portrait photo of themselves, their date of birth, and their identification number. The card permits a refugee to obtain food rations, open a bank account, access health facilities, and pursue an education in the camps.
Soon after the crisis began, the governments of Nepal and Bhutan initiated a series of bilateral dialogues in an attempt to find a durable solution. Through inconsistent statements and skillful maneuvering, Bhutan was able to prolong the discussion process. Eleven years passed in which 15 separate dialogues took place, each of them ending fruitlessly. Realizing that a solution would not surface in the near future, many Bhutanese began to temporarily leave the camps in search of work.
Karna Rai’s family was no different. Strapped for cash and tired of the stagnant opportunities available in the camps, Karna left in 2005 with plans of returning in a year.
He ended up in Gujarat, India, but after eight months of labor his boss offered to fly him to Delhi where he could make higher wages working at a factory.
“Obviously I accepted,” Karna said, “But after I landed and was transported to the factory, I found out I wasn’t anywhere close to Delhi.” He wasn’t even in India.
Karna had been trafficked to Malaysia, sent to work at a factory. The compound was all inclusive, complete with a bunkhouse, cafeteria, and store, but the workers weren’t permitted to leave. Karna struggled to adjust in this new environment, where people were speaking Malay, Tamil, Bengali, and a little Hindi, but no Nepali. After more than a year, Karna negotiated his way out with one of the bosses and immediately looked up the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. They reviewed his documents and called their counterparts in Nepal. His story was confirmed and Karna was soon on a plane back to his family and his hut in Beldangi I.
Three years had passed since he left in 2005, and a lot had changed for the refugees still in the camps. The resettlement program had begun, and many of his neighbors were already gone. At the same time, the UNHCR had instated another census in 2006 in order to re-identify all of the refugees present in the camps. New ID cards were administered, and to Karna’s befuddlement, only those with one of the new cards now had refugee status.
He took his old ID card and a laminated letter from Malaysia to the UNHCR office and told them his story, but his case is still pending. It has been pending for a year and a half.
There are many more like Karna who, for various reasons, were not in the camps for the 2006 census. Many were working in India, Kathmandu, or other parts of Nepal, but all of them who didn’t make it back were denied refugee status after already obtaining it once.
TB Gurung, Camp Secretary of Beldangi I, estimated that there are over 3,000 refugees who missed the 2006 census. “Those who were once refugees are now asylum seekers,” TB explained. They have to go back to the UNHCR, present their papers, and go through the interview process again. “The UNHCR’s tentativeness is a result of fraudulent cases,” Gurung added.
Poor Nepalis from the local community began posing as refugees in an attempt to gain access to the weekly food rations provided by the World Food Program. It was under these circumstances that the UNHCR decided to institute the 2006 census.
Further construing the identification of refugees are cases of mix-marriage, in which a Bhutanese marries into the local community. The refugees share almost similar cultural and tradition with local Nepalese nationals, and it is difficult to determine who becomes a refugee when intermarriage takes place.
Pratibedan Baidhya, External Relations Assistant at the UNHCR in Nepal, attributes these cases of mix-marriage to delaying the process for people like Karna. “Several certificates must be verified, which makes everything take longer,” he said. In some cases the Nepali wants to gain refugee status, while other times the Bhutanese wants to gain Nepali citizenship.
Unfortunately, Karna’s case may be far back on the UNHCR’s to do list. The agency is currently in the throes of resettlement, interviewing an endless queue of families and arranging travel to western nations every day. When there is time to devote to unregistered refugees, UNHCR staff must first wade through the cases of fraud and mismarriage before getting to straightforward cases like Karna’s.
Fortunately for Karna, he is able to survive in the camps without having official refugee status because his wife and son can both receive food rations, but they won’t be qualified for resettlement until his new ID card comes through. Karna is not too optimistic either.
“My beard will be grey by the time I get to resettle. I will be finished. My life will be finished here,” he said.
(Graham contributed this story for BNS from New York City. He is a multimedia journalist and his works are available at http://benjamingraham1.blogspot.com. Graham was in Nepal covering Bhutanese refugee issues from June – August this year)