Resettlement of refugees from Bhutan to the US has topped 75,000 according to the US Embassy in Kathmandu. About 100,000 ethnically Nepali refugees left Bhutan in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the wake of rising nationalism directed against Nepali speakers.
They spent decades living in camps in southeastern Nepal as round after round of repatriation talks between Nepal and Bhutan failed. In 2006 the UN stepped in to resettle the refugees, and resettlement began in early 2008. Six years later nearly 89,000 refugees have been resettled, over 75,000 of them to the US.
Many of the remaining refugees are senior citizens concerned about adjusting to life in the US. They don’t want want to be resettled, but the younger generation was eager to go. They remembered little or nothing of life in Bhutan, and their lives in the camps were miserable.
The huts erected hastily in the early 1990s for the refugees were half-walled, thatched roof structures that looked a bit like a picnic-table shelter in an American park or campground. Their inhabitants filled in the walls with woven bamboo and mud plaster, making the huts more weather-tight, but the result was that they were dark and smoky due to the simple brick hearths on which the refugees had to cook. There were no paved streets, and the sanitation and water supply were primitive.
Small wonder then that so many of the refugees were eager to come to the US. 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. Because the refugees were prohibited from working in Nepal, few arrived in the US with any sort of resume; they found it hard to land jobs in a weak economy. Even those with professional experience, like teachers, felt fortunate to get a job behind a cash register.
The refugees’ strong sense of community and willingness to help each other were plusses for them in their new lives. So too was the US policy of placing relatively large clusters of them together. Several states have each accepted over 5,000 of the Bhutanese.
The US will stop taking applications for resettlement at the end of June this year, so the remaining refugees, many of whom are elderly, will have to make their decision soon. What they really want is to return to Bhutan, but that is vanishingly unlikely. Nepal will allow them to stay but only as refugees, not as citizens. Many of them will opt for that, joining about 13,500 Tibetan refugees, some of whom have been living here since the 1950s.