Refugees begin odyssey to US as Bhutan goes to polls

March 24th, 2008 - 2:40 pm ICT by admin  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, March 24 (IANS) As the reclusive Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan Monday made a date with history by holding a general election, the first large-scale exodus of its evicted citizens to the US from Nepal also began with weeping lines of men and women condemning the polls as a sham. “It’s a dummy election to hoodwink the international donors and keep the foreign aid pouring in,” said an indignant Vishnu Mainali, a 30-year-old Bhutanese who was thrown out of southern Bhutan 13 years ago along with his parents, four brothers and their wives.

“I feel humiliated,” said Mainali, who along with over 107,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin - almost one-sixth of Bhutan’s population - have been barred from taking part in Monday’s election, touted as heralding the end to the absolute rule of its royal family that reigned for a century and the start of parliamentary democracy.

“I am a Bhutanese and yet I can’t set foot in my own country.”

While Mainali and his family are awaiting the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Nepal (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to process their applications and enable them to start a new life in a third country, 30 apprehensive Bhutanese will Monday head for the US.

Daisy Dell, head of the UNHCR that runs the seven camps in eastern Nepal where the refugees have been living since their eviction from Bhutan almost two decades ago, said though 100 people had been sent to US cities since this year, the first full-scale third-country resettlement started from Sunday.

“Over 120 people would be resettled in four days,” Dell said. “After that, we expect 1,500 to be resettled every month and 10,000 refugees to be resettled by the end of 2008.”

By next year, UNHCR envisions 20,000 refugees making their ways to cities in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands.

Though the seven countries regard repatriation as the best solution, a view upheld by the refugees themselves, the possibility seemed remote after 15 rounds of bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan broke down and multilateral demarches sent by the western governments to the Bhutan king were ignored.

“I went to the border of Bhutan, looked at my country and cried,” said a sobbing Khinmaya Thapa, a 64-year-old abandoned wife who has been bringing up her six children in the Sanischare refugee camp by herself.

“My own homeland rejected me, my husband beat me, life gave me nothing but sorrow. I am going to the US now in search of peace.”

Thapa will be leaving for Nepal Monday with her 20-year-old son while her other children are expected to join her later in the week.

Nearly 12,000 refugees - including teachers, skilled workers, graduates, and illiterate farmers and labourers - have applied to go abroad after a life of heartbreaking hardship and growing fear in the closed camps.

Refugees who want to go back home fear that an exodus of their peers would reduce the pressure on Bhutan to take them back. So they are opposing the move, and there have been frequent clashes in the camps, resulting in the death of at least two recently.

The departing Bhutanese also blame India, Bhutan’s biggest donor, trade partner and foreign affairs advisor, for their plight.

“Bhutan is still evicting its citizens of Nepali origin,” said Ram Kumar Thapa, 20, who is escorting his mother to the US.

“India could have helped us. But it didn’t even allow us to come back the way we landed in Nepal and instead blocked our way.

“I am happy to go. I will finally get rid of the refugee tag.”

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