Camp blaze deals Bhutan refugees major blow

By Sudeshna Sarkar

Kathmandu(IANS) : As Nepal observed Diwali with fireworks, feasting and merry-making, fate dealt a major blow to hundreds of Bhutanese refugees languishing in a camp when a fire rendered them homeless yet again.

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A fire in the Beldangi refugee camp, in eastern Nepal’s Jhapa district, Friday night spread to the shanties in the cramped enclosure, gutting over 50 one-room hutments.

Fire tenders and locals had to battle the blaze for over three hours before it could be brought under control.

More than 500 refugees have been forced to seek shelter in the nearby forests, Nepal’s local media said Saturday.

Nearly 108,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin have been living in enclosed camps in Jhapa and Morang districts in eastern Nepal for 17 years now, following their eviction by the Bhutan government.

The refugees live on the charity of donors overseen by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Though Nepal has allowed them to stay in the camps, it prevents them from working or running businesses, creating an abject dependence on donors.

After nearly two decades of stalemate, with Bhutan refusing to allow the refugees to return home despite 15 rounds of repatriation talks, the donors have been showing signs of fatigue, cutting down assistance and creating a fear of food and other shortages in future.

Finally, the US and other western countries offered to resettle the refugees, an offer that was greeted with relief by Nepal and a section of the refugees.

The offer however also created further tension in the camps with those wanting to return to Bhutan opposing the resettlement offer.

Three people have died in the camps so far due to internal clashes.

Finally, this week things began to move with the resettlement process starting.

Nearly 3,000 refugees have already expressed their keenness to go to the US and some have already been cleared, US assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration Ellen Sauerbrey said during her recent visit to Nepal.

Initially, 60,000 refugees would be resettled in the US but Washington has said it would take as many as showed an interest to go.

The first planeload of Bhutanese refugees is expected to reach the US by late January.

Meanwhile, the US has also said it would continue dialogue with Bhutan and its biggest trade partner and foreign affairs advisor India to try persuade Bhutan to take back those refugees who want to return home.

It said it would also keep an eye on Bhutan to ensure that the Druk kingdom did not expel more citizens of ethnic origin in future.

Friday’s fire underlines the immediate need for a permanent solution to the refugee crisis.

Frustration, alcoholism and domestic violence as well as prostitution is said to be rising in the camps after nearly two decades’ internment without any sign of hope.

There is also a fear that the young refugees could become militant and a new Maoist movement could take root in the camps.