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Daniel Lak reports from Nepal
"Social tensions frequently boil over"
 real 56k

Wednesday, 22 November, 2000, 16:12 GMT
Bhutanese despair in exile
Bhutanese refugees
There are some 100,000 refugees living in camps across Nepal
By Daniel Lak in Jhapa, Nepal

PR Dahal holds a tattered photograph in his hand. It is a picture of a house - his house, where he and his family used to live in southern Bhutan.

He shows it to people who come to his current home, a bamboo hut at the Timai refugee camp in south-east Nepal.


I want to go home. I was 10 when I came here. I have many good memories of Bhutan

Dili Ram Adikhari, 19
"Look at what we had," he says, gesturing at the photo of a ochre-coloured concrete bungalow with a distinctive pagoda roof.

"We left that behind for this place, no power, no water and plenty of mosquitoes."

PR Dahal is one of around 100,000 people living in refugee camps in eastern Nepal.

It's been nearly 10 years since the first wave of Nepali speaking migrants fled, or left, southern Bhutan - 10 years that have seen no progress towards a resolution of their plight.

Refugee camp
Conditions in the camp are far from ideal
The Princess Royal will visit the refugee camps on the 28 November as part of a five day trip to Nepal.

PR Dahal isn't alone is hoping that her presence can somehow restart momentum towards a solution to one of the world's least known refugee crises.

Identity questioned

Bhutan says many of the people in the camps in Nepal aren't legitimate Bhutanese citizens.

Some are criminals maintain officials in Thimpu, others are economic migrants from poor parts of Nepal who settled illegally in Bhutan.

"Nonsense," says Mr Dahal, whose family went to Bhutan early in the 20th century and who served as a government official and national assembly member before he left in 1990.

Bhutanese schoolgirls
Starting the day with the Bhutanese anthem
"They forced us to leave. One day I saw the king and told him about injustices towards my people, the Nepali-speakers, in southern Bhutan, the next I was picked up and dumped on the border with India and forced to leave."

Whatever the truth of the situation, a visit to the camps shows that something must be done to move the situation along, somehow.

At morning assembly at Timai's main high school, 3,000 students sing the Bhutanese national anthem to start their day.

Bhutanese men at refugee camp
The men are unemployed and frustrated
Nineteen-year-old Dili Ram Adikhari will graduate this year from Year 10, but there is little or no prospect that he can ever put that education to use in Nepal, at least legally.

"We can't take jobs outside the camps," he says, "So I want to work for the aid agencies to help my people.

"But most importantly, I want to go home. I was 10 when I came here. I have many good memories of Bhutan."

Violence

In another camp about an hours drive away, young women sit on the ground, adding up numbers with calculators.

They're looking into the link between domestic violence and the sheer hopelessness felt by many male refugees - unemployed and with easy access to alcohol.


The sense of despair is powerful

Western aid worker
Meena Karki of the British charity Oxfam is supervising the study.

"We don't know yet what the exact numbers are but when you talk to women, you realise the problem is acute."

The outgoing UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, visited the camps last May and later said she hoped a solution might emerge within a month.

Bhutanese refugee
What does the future hold for her?
Far more time than that has gone by and talks between Bhutan and Nepal on ways to repatriate at least some refugees have stalled.

"Hope soared after her visit," said a western aid agency official who works in the camps.

"It was an unreasonable hope because she was clearly talking about the best case scenario.

"That hasn't happened and now the sense of despair is powerful."

Diplomats in Kathmandu watch the refugee situation closely and hope the Nepali and Bhutanese Governments can resume talking soon.

But as one official put it, "this situation is falling off the radar screen and the fear is that something dramatic, something ugly, may have to happen to get it back in view."

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See also:

25 May 00 | South Asia
Bhutan refugee talks deadlocked
04 May 00 | South Asia
UN hopeful on Bhutan refugees
24 Apr 00 | South Asia
Bhutan crticised over Nepalese refugees
10 Jan 00 | South Asia
Return of Bhutanese refugees demanded
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