Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal
In autumn 2013 I was assigned by Franco/German TV Channel Arte to be part of a reportage team that would document the lives of Bhutanese Refugees living in Jhapal district of Nepal.  In 1992 the Bhutan government commenced a policy of ethnic cleansing, and some 107,000 refugees were driven across the border, initially into a kind of no man’s land, and eventually on into eastern Nepal. The Nepalese government washed their hands of this humanitarian disaster, and so the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) established five camps.
Twenty four years on and now several years into a resettlement programme only 20,000 or so refugees still reside in the camp, the vast majority having begun a new life in the west, predominantly the US. It is planned that all the camps will have closed by 2017.
Camp Beldangi, from where these images were mostly created, is known locally as 'Camp Paradise', and ironic moniker.
The team consisted of Régis Wernier, Oscar winning film director (Indochine), distinguished writer Fatou Diome, and French cartoonist Nicolas Wild. Over a period of two weeks each created a unique execution that personally expressed their experiences in the camp.  The documentary has been broadcast several times on Arte TV, with significant coverage on the web and also internationally in the traditional print media. Images from the work carried out in Nepal have since been exhibited in Paris and Strasbourg, and in April 2016 a book will be published.
The Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal are scheduled to close in 2017, when it is hoped that all the remaining refugees will have resettled. As they leave, their shelters are broken down and the land is set-aside for agriculture; the growing of valuable vegetables to supplement the rice and palm nut oil provided by the WFP. The newspapers that once provided shelter from the elements refer to the new Syrian refugee crisis being overseen by UNHCR. As one humanitarian crisis draws to a close, elsewhere in the world a new one continues unabated.
The bicycle is the ‘family car’ for the majority of Bhutanese refugees in Beldangi
The Beldangi Refugee Camp sits on a flood plain in the Jhapa district of south-east Nepal. Bordered by jungle, the region contains one of the highest concentrations of venomous snakes in the world, wild Asiatic Elephants regularly enter the camp destroying houses (and occasionally killing refugees); and the whole region is alive with insects, with numbers rising to unbearable levels during the traditional rice harvest in September and October.
With so much of her life behind her, an elderly Bhutanese refugee seems to ponder the uncertainty of what remains.
A prosperous business community, made up of local Jhapalis has sprung up around the camp, offering everything from Western Union money transfers, to the alcohol that has begun to blight the refugees. As the camp enters curfew after dark, so the local concessions close shop for another day.
Young girls are reflected in a mirror that hangs outside their shelter, while their grandfather fashions a table out of bamboo in the background.
Children relax in the IOM (International Office of Migration) Transition Centre in Kathmandu. Until arriving the day before, these children had only ever known the confines of the Beldangi Refugee Camp.
The elderly are the most vulnerable part of the resettlement programme. Many wish to stay but those that leave with their families face a complex and uncertain future, unable to assimilate into a western construct that is unrecognisable to the life they have known. 2nd generation refugees will grow up as Americans or Australians with a new cultural heritage and values, but the elderly Bhutanese will mostly be unable to do so.
It’s easy to imagine that our cultural heritage is somehow in our DNA, but it’s merely an attribute of our own socialisation. Each evening children learn traditional Bhutanese folk dances, the lyrics steeped in the stories of love and marriage. It’s easy to imagine that in a few short years these children’s cultural heritage will be MTV and Wal-Mart.
“Namaste”, the common salutation that greets you at every turn. Families try to resettle as units, meaning that the elderly who have only ever known an agrarian Bhutanese life followed by 22 years in a Refugee Camp, will need to adapt to living in a western capitalist city. A large proportion of the elderly do not wish to leave, hopelessly holding on to the belief that Bhutan will allow them to one day return, but those who do resettle often do so to allow their children and grand children the supposed opportunity that was denied to them.
Sani Ram Majhi, 75 years old lies on a bench outside his home, suffering from a high fever. Whilst his family looked on, he slowly fanned himself letting out painful moans with each exhalation. Temperatures and humidity in the camp are stultifying making even basic medical ailments potentially dangerous. This undiagnosed infection soon spread through parts of the camp with levels closely monitored by UNHCR; though by the time we departed numbers were dropping and a contagion had been averted.
With crime and dependency an issue, a Nepalese Parliamentary Police Force has provided 25 police officers to maintain security within the camp. They patrol the camp and the jungle that borders it on an 8-hour rotation, 24 hours a day. Head of the force, Inspector D. B. Baduwal (Dil) watches TV in his bedroom. All accommodation throughout the camp is constructed of simple bamboo paneling. Their residents cover the walls with discarded newspapers in the hope of reducing mosquito levels, and to keep high winds at bay during the monsoon.
The elderly feel the frail fear of resettlement, the middle-aged dream of a new future for themselves and their families, and children like children everywhere live a life of mostly unadulterated happiness.
With drugs, alcoholism and criminality a growing issue, especially during the curfew hours, security is tight.
Pabi Maya Tamang Gurung watches over her 12 day-old son, Prabhat, moments after his traditional ‘naming ceremony’ held early one morning by a Hindu priest. While she washes and dresses her son, other family members prepare food for some 200 guests who have come to celebrate the occasion.
Access to the camp is strictly prohibited after dark and everyone except the refugees must leave by sunset. I gained permission however to patrol with the parliamentary police force whose job it is to maintain law and order in the camp. At night they patrol the jungle looking for drug and alcohol dependents, before entering the camp itself. Just days after another elephant attack, refugees had once again heard elephants close by, and terrified they lit warning fires to keep the invaders at bay. The camp has a hostile feel at night and the few refugees that we came across looked both startled and scared.
There is a dark side to life in the camp. The resettlement process is strict, and whilst most pass, others have issues that prevent them from leaving. The camp suffers from relatively high levels of alcohol and drug dependency. These dependencies derive from a purposeless existence where everything needed to survive is provided; but with increasing levels of income from work in the local economy and with nothing to spend their income on many turn to drugs and alcohol. Here, doctors fight to save the life of Santi Maya Masor after she attempted suicide by ingesting high levels of poison. An alcoholic, her dependency meant that her family could not resettle as they wished to, and her attempted suicide was probably a response to that. These types of family divisions during the resettlement process occasionally lead to suicide and divorce, as some seek a way out and a release for loved ones.
Camp life is determined by two distinct phases, day and night. With no electricity and therefore lighting, refugees begin their day at first light (0500) and end it as the sun sets, around 1800 hours. At night the camp becomes an increasingly dangerous environment, the time when dependents and criminal elements operate, and most refugees head to the safety of home before last light.
In conversation, refugees seem to fall into two groups; those who are excited about resettling and joining family members who have written to say their new life is wonderful, and those who have been advised to stay in the camp by relatives who have found life a torrid thing in the new world. 30 year old Raj Krishna Rai, seen her with his daughter Olivia inhabits the first group. His brother, already living in the US writes regularly to say that he has landed a good job and his family is settled and happy. Raj gave his newborn daughter a western name in anticipation of her new life in America.
Baby Olivia Rai in her handmade cradle. She will soon begin a new life in the US, and will be one of the few who will have no memory of Camp Paradise.
Two generations have been born and raised in the camp, the children and grandchildren of the original Bhutanese refugees who arrived in 1992. This young mother and her son will soon resettle in the US, a world away from the only life they have known until now
Beldangi becomes a mud bath when the monsoon rains hit - with searing temperatures and humidity, and only basic amenities, life can be brutal. For those who were born here 22 years ago, it is the only life they have known.
Irrepressible youth – it is a scene that abounds wherever you go.
In the IOM Transition Centre in Kathmandu, young girls share a pensive moment together. Having transferred from Beldangi the week before, tomorrow they will all catch a plane to the US to start a new life. The Transition Centre has the feel of nervous confusion, as the refugees learn how to buckle their seatbelts on the plane and to recognise pictures of Elvis Presley.
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