Family separation, Bhutan-style

A classroom full of Bhutanese refugee children in Beldangi. Many of them have been denied resettlement to be with their families already in the US. All photos: JAMIE PIOTROWSKI

As a student in Pittsburg in the United States, I began working with refugee populations four years ago. A wide-eyed sociology graduate I was aspiring to change the world, though I did not know exactly how.

My first job as Resettlement Caseworker changed the trajectory of my life. The first family I was helping were three men from Bhutan, a father and two sons who had arrived in Pittsburgh but needed help to adjust and find work.

Now, as a graduate student I came to Nepal to learn more about the people from Bhutan who were my neighbours and friends back in the United States. They were among the 75,000 Nepali-speaking Lhotsampa people forced out by Bhutan’s royal regime and with Indian help sent to Nepal. They were housed in refugee camps for the next 20 years until they started being repatriated to the US, the UK, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia.

Over 8,000 refugees still remain in Nepal, mostly in the camps. But restrictive immigration policies in some of these countries have brought resettlement to a halt for the Bhutanese, some of whom have been living in the camp for nearly three decades. The result: families have been separated, much in the same way that children were taken away from illegal migrants in the United States.

Tikaram Rasaily is the elected camp secretary at Beldangi, one of the last remaining refugee centres. He was forced to leave his home in Bhutan when he was five years old, and has very few memories of his home but says: “I feel Bhutan in my heart.” And he wants to return one day.

Rasaily’s family is now resettled to the United States. His mother and brother live in Atlanta and his sister in Akron, Ohio. Since going back to Bhutan is likely impossible, he would like to be reunited with his family. But he remains in the camp with his wife and child because his application for family reunification was denied by the United States Department of Human Services and UNHCR.

“I was never told why, I have human rights, but no one is allowing me to express them,” he says.

As camp secretary, Rasaily is worried about the funding cuts that will affect fellow-refugees who remain. The UN stipend for refugees is now only Rs650 per person every month in lieu of food rations.The World Food Program (WFP) supplies of oil, sugar, salt and other rations have also been slashed, only rice is distributed. Additionally, education funding for 951 students is being cut and students beginning Grade 5 must get enrolled in Nepali government schools.

There are only three options for refugees according to UNHCR guidelines: assimilation in Nepal,  repatriation to Bhutan, or third-country resettlement. Unfortunately, for many of the remaining refugees, none of these options are viable. Nepal has not accepted the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, nor established a national legal framework concerning refugees and asylum-seekers, and Bhutan refuses to take its people back.

Applications for resettlement to a third country have been closed since December 2016. Only those approved for family reunification may travel, though many are still waiting for their departure dates. The only other remaining camp in Sanischare may be closed soon.

Meanwhile, Bhutanese outside the camps face different challenges. Tek Nath Rizal, 71, the leader of the Bhutanese in forced exile used to be a member of the Royal Advisory Council in Thimphu. He fled to Nepal after being accused of a conspiracy against the King, but Nepal’s royal government kidnapped him from his home in Kathmandu and deported him back to Bhutan in 1989. He was jailed and tortured for 10 years and named a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International.

Rizal now lives in Kathmandu, Nepal, he is not recognised as a refugee by the Nepal government. He has been adamantly opposed to third country resettlement, and wants all Lhotsampa to be allowed to return to Bhutan. He worries that the international community has abandoned the refugees, especially the case of unregistered refugees, family separations, and justice. ”Those who violated our human rights are still in power in Thimphu today, all I want is to bring democracy to Bhutan before I die,” he told us.

Bhampa Rai was a royal physician in Bhutan, and did not have to leave his country. But seeing the plight of his compatriots in refugee camps in Nepal, he thought they needed his care more than the royal family. He lived with his wife taking care of sick refugees for nearly three decades. Rai has relatives resettled in Texas, but refuses to go.

“I will either return to Bhutan or die here as a refugee,” he says. The UN has tried to convince the couple to return to Bhutan, but Thimphu has repeatedly rejected it.

There are many Bhutanese I met in the United States and in Nepal who remain positive despite what they have been through for so long. They are still hopeful about justice being served some day, but it may have to be a long wait.