Resettlement of ethnically-Nepali refugees from Bhutan to the US has reached the halfway mark according to US officials and a report from Nepal’s Home Ministry. About 110,000 refugees left Bhutan in the late 1980s and early 1990s and have been living in camps in southeast Nepal’s Jhapa district since.
After decades of talks between Nepal and Bhutan failed to agree on repatriation, the UN stepped in 2006 to resettle the refugees. The US agreed to take 60,000, and six other countries agreed to take up to 10,000 refugees each. Resettlement began in March 2008.
As of September 30th, about 36,000 refugees had been resettled, over 30,000 of them to the US. More than 75,000 Bhutanese remain in the camps. Not all want to be resettled: most of the older refugees would have rather been able to go “home,” as they have continued to refer to Bhutan. But a large majority will ultimately choose resettlement, with the US being by far their preferred destination.
The younger generation is particularly eager to go. They remember little or nothing of life in Bhutan, and their lives in the camps have been miserable.
The huts erected hastily in the early 1990s for the refugees are half-walled, thatched roof structures that look a bit like a picnic-table shelter in an American park or campground. Their inhabitants have filed in the walls with woven bamboo and mud plaster, making the huts a little more weather-tight, but the result is that they are dark and smoky due to the simple brick hearths on which the refugees must cook. There are no paved streets, and the sanitation and water supply are primitive.
Small wonder then that many are eager to come to the US, seen as the land of opportunity for themselves and their children. Bhutanese refugees in the US receive assistance during their first year and are eligible for a green card after two years, as long as they follow the program rules and have no police record.
But resettlement hasn’t been easy for them, especially for the older generation. Universal schooling in the camps means that most refugees in their teens and 20s speak some English, but their parents and grandparents often don’t. Because the refugees were prohibited from working in Nepal, few have any sort of resume; they are finding it hard to land jobs in a weak economy.
And the private organizations like Catholic Social Services and the International Rescue Committee that are implementing the resettlement in the US are strained too. Finding housing for the refugees and seeing that they have food, health services and English classes is becoming increasingly difficult as more of the Bhutanese arrive. Agencies say that “donor fatigue” is also a problem now, two and a half years on.
The refugees’ strong sense of community and willingness to help each other will be a plus for them in their new lives. So too will the US policy of placing relatively large clusters of them together. Texas has more than three thousand Bhutanese now. There are 2,500 in New York and almost as many in Georgia.
And the US may take more than 60,000 of the refugees ultimately. While Canada and Australia have each taken about 1,800 refugees, other countries party to the 2006 agreement have made only token steps. In June, visiting U.S. Deputy Under-secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration Kelly Clements told Nepal’s minister for foreign affairs that the US number was flexible. With twice as many Bhutanese still waiting as have been repatriated so far, that’s good news for those still in the camps.