Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Unbecoming a refugee

While many Bhutanese wait for resettlement, some still wait for acknowledgment.

Benjamin Graham
Published in Bhutan News Service
October 19, 2010

DAMAK, Nepal - 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 resettlement program sponsored by the United Nations High Commission for 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 most of his life 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 displaced populations from 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. It is not uncommon for similarly desperate people to 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 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, TB said.

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 mismarriage, in which a Bhutanese marries into the local community. The refugees share a similar Hindu heritage with Nepalis, and it is difficult to determine who becomes a refugee when intermarriages takes place. Pratibedan Baidhya, External Relations Assistant at the UNHCR in Nepal, attributes these cases of mismarriage to delaying the process for people like Karna. "Several certificates must be verified when [mismarriages] occur, which makes everything take longer," he said. In some instances 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 able to apply for resettlement until his new ID card comes through. Karna is not too optimistic. "My beard will be gray by the time I get to resettle. I will be finished. My life will be finished here," he said.


Karna Rai displays a laminated letter issued by the UNHCR office in Malaysia that reads 'Rai, a citizen from Bhutan, is an asylum seeker in Malaysia.'

Bhutanese children are often left temporarily fatherless due to migrant work, leaving families under the care of mothers and older brothers.

Ram Chandra Mishra (left), a Bhutanese refugee in Beldangi-II, was working in India during the UNHCR's official census in 2006. After several years away, Ram was reunited with his family in the last week of August. Like Karna, Ram has yet to be registered as an official refugee.

Ram's daughter the day after his return to Nepal.

Many huts were gutted because of resettlement, like the one below left, during the years that Karna and Ram were absent from the refugee camps.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The missing generation

Times they are a changin' in rural Nepal as young people leave their villages for the city.

Benjamin Graham
Published in The Kathmandu Post
October 2, 2010

Aahale village in Dhading district is like many villages across the hills of Nepal. Families grow their own rice on terraced fields; children walk uphill to school each morning; and grandparents sip tea on their porches while sharing local gossip.

But as I walked through Aahale with my friend and travel companion Raj Sadaula, I realised something was different.

Raj, 27, is an English teacher in Kathmandu, but was born in Aahale. He makes the 150km trip to visit his relatives every so often, and this time I was invited along. A muddy two-day bus and truck ride dropped us at his village after dark, where all of his relatives were still up waiting for our arrival. Aunts and uncles greeted us with namaste while children opted for hugs, but not a single person Raj's age was present. An entire generation was missing.

Raj has nine paternal cousins, but his younger brother is the only one of his relatives in his generation that still lives in Aahale. The rest are either in Kathmandu or have married and moved out.

Although Nepal is one of the least urbanised countries in the world, the phenomenon of urban migration is nothing new here. People have been leaving their villages in droves for the last 50 years, seeking better opportunities in Kathmandu and other urban centres. The effects of the ensuing demographic change are easily visible within the Capital, where the population has increased from 200,000 in 1952 to more than 1.5 million today. New housing projects continue to pop up among lands that were once paddy fields and traffic congestion somehow increases by the week. This rapid development in urban areas is marked by less drastic changes in rural areas, where the reasons for migration and the ramifications it has on daily life are more subtle.

In Aahale, education is one of the driving factors that lead young people to leave. The local primary school is a ten minute walk up the hill. Its mud and stone walls protect students from the weather, but the packed classrooms don't provide the best learning environment. An English teacher who actually speaks English is difficult to find. This is where most children growing up in Aahale begin school, but the trend recently has been for them to finish somewhere else.

"I encouraged each of my children to study in Kathmandu because education in our village can only take a person so far," says Ram Sadaula, Raj's uncle. His daughter is 22 and now pursuing a journalism degree in Kathmandu. A university degree doesn't do much good out here, Ram adds. It's more convenient to know how to harvest rice.

Others have left the village for financial reasons. Narayan Nepali, 19, is the son of the village tailor, but rather than follow in his father's footsteps, he now drives a bus in Kathmandu. He was back visiting his family in Aahale at the same time we were.

"I try to visit when I can," Narayan says, "but I can usually make it back only during the festival season." Indeed, many of these children-in-absence attempt to visit regularly, but the trip home is far from convenient.

The road that Raj and I travelled to get to Aahale is the only road that leads from Dhading Besi (Dhading district headquarters) to the village. Like 57 percent of Nepalis, the residents of Aahale do not have access to an all-weather road. Remnants of pavement lie like a patch-work quilt near the beginning, but that soon gives way to half-metre ruts and small boulders—more of a river bed than a highway. The path becomes nearly impassible during monsoon, and people are beginning to find it easier to leave the village long-term than to continue coming back.

This trend has started to worry village elders. The land is important to them. "We have been living here since before Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered the Valley," Ram explains. That was nearly 300 years ago. To this older generation, this land is more than just their property; it is their life-line.

Land and land ownership have always been of central importance to life in Nepal. Centuries of operating under a feudal system have left a small number of people owning a large amount of the land, making ownership all the more valuable to those who can afford it. With roughly three-fourths of the population employed in agriculture—producing a third of Nepal's GDP—the old axiom still rings true: having land means having a job. In Aahale, it is no different.

But times are changing. In 1971, there were 16 urban centres in Nepal, compared to 58 at the turn of the millennium. The movement towards urban life is slow, with more than 80 percent of Nepal's population still living in rural areas, but it is irreversible. The elders in Aahale wonder what will become of their village when they are no longer around to take care of it.

"My brothers and I are worried that our land will go unused," Ram says. "We want our children and grandchildren to take over. Yes, the land has been in our family forever, but more than that, it is all we have ever had, and all that we have invested in," he says.

Ram says he originally hoped that his children, along with his nieces and nephews, would leave only to get an education, and then return with new skills to help improve conditions in the village. But this hasn't worked out, as many of their children have begun to put down deeper roots in Kathmandu. Now, even Ram spends a significant amount of time in the city visiting them.

One solution that all of the elders proposed is to fix the road, making the village more accessible and therefore easier to visit from Kathmandu. They acknowledge that there is no turning back modernisation, and that migration to Kathmandu will only increase. But, they say, the ideal situation is when a person can have a foot in both places, and a better road would make that possible, or at least more feasible.

"I am not opposed to my children moving to Kathmandu," says Raj's eldest uncle, "In fact, that may be better for them, but it would be nice if they could travel back and forth; maintain our land here and still live there."


The road to Aahale is haphazardly repaired each year by the government of Nepal, rendering it nearly impassible during monsoon season.

Dipa Nepali's eldest grandson is 19 and drives a bus in Kathmandu, but her younger grandchildren still live in Aahale and attend the local school.

Village life continues in Aahale, despite the absence of young adults.

Raj's aunts and uncles continue to work the land well into their 70's.

Students hang out of a packed classroom at Aahale primary school. Many of these students will finish school elsewhere, and the more studious ones aspire to attend college in Kathmandu.

Raj's father leads us through rice paddies before sunrise. Opting to hike rather than ride in a truck for two days, we get an early start on the 12 hour walk back to Dhading Besi.

The bus ride is from Dhading Besi to Kalanki Chowk in Kathmandu is a short four hour nap.