Sneha Agrawal, M.A. Development Studies- - - -
The Lhotshampa people of Bhutan reside in a small mucky camp compressed in the outskirts of Damak (Beldangi). Bedlangi 1, one of the 7 refugee camps gradually constructed after the displacement of 1,08000 refugees. Established inside the long dense forest of Damak, it is rarely noticed by the naked eyes of the travelers through Terai. The gateway to the camp is filled with small crummy shops on both sides thus giving an impression of a bamboo village. These vendors who belonged to the nearby villages started residing around the walls of the camp gradually after refugee settlement. Often filled with rush and closely packed bamboo huts throughout the long route of shops, stalls, and western union signs, what becomes interesting is the distinct visibility of high-quality cemented buildings of Amda Health Centre and Nepali Armed Police Force (APF).
Beginning as simple laborer in the 17th century, the Lhotshampa people abided in the southern lowlands of Bhutan, bringing over a unique culture from their homeland Nepal. In the early 20th century, the monarch of Bhutan encouraged the migration of Lhotshampa as it increased the tax received by the government. As the Lhotshampa flowed in from Nepal, their population in the south ballooned, constituting of 45% of total population, eclipsing the native Bhutanese residents which resulted as a matter of concern to the monarch of Bhutan. (1988 census of Bhutan)
In 1985, Citizenship Act of Bhutan declared numerous Nepalese as non-nationals because Lhotshampa people were perceived as a threat to the political order and ethnic culture. In 1987, “One Nation One Policy” was introduced which restricted the ethnic Nepali beliefs, Dress Code, Language etc. Furthermore, in the 1990s, the interethnic conflict grew violent between Lhotshampa resistance groups and government security forces and civilians on both sides were abused and brutalized. After a few years, they were forced to sign a voluntary migration form and were stripped off from their citizenship rights. 1,10,000 Lhotshampa fled to Nepal and settled in the six camps around south east Nepal. Since 2000, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been closely working with Lhotshampas to resettle them to third world countries. After the last resettlement program of 2016, 1,12,800 refugees were resettled in various parts of the world as such as the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and other European countries.
The real question that requires addressing here is the future of 6,500 refugees currently residing in the camp. In 2019, UNHCR declared that 2018 resettlement program was the last one, and no more refugees will be resettled. UNHCR also announced that they will be cutting down the resources provided to them.
“I still dream of going back to Bhutan. If you ask me, I want to die in that very land, but don’t have a choice anymore. Talking of the reality, I suppose I will be living in this very camp which has no future. The INGOs came and helped us for 25 years but have left now. They brought joy and smiles on the lips of many Lhotshampas but left us abruptly. They made us stand on our feet by helping us with everything possible but failed to progress us and didn’t prepare us for this day.” Said Bal Bahadur Rai in grief and pain.
Description- Bal Bahadur Rai sitting in front of his grocery store: Bedlangi
Furthermore, the government of Bhutan has clearly denied taking back the refugees as they do not possess any documents to prove their identity as Bhutanese which leaves them with no scope of repatriation. The Nepalese government is not in the capacity of providing them with citizenship and any kind of rights which would lead to their assimilation in the country. The current situation of the refugees has immensely degraded because all agencies have now washed their hands leaving them completely on their own which they are not ready for. Meanwhile, the epidemic, covid-19 worsened their situation immensely by leaving the poverty-stricken stateless citizens with no source of income thus, making it difficult to make their end’s meet.
The real question that requires addressing here is the future of 6,500 refugees currently residing in the camp. I would like to leave the readers with the question, are they always going to abide in the camp with identity diaspora¿ Even if they continue to live in the camp who will be responsible to provide them with the resources¿
What will be their future identity¿ Where will they go¿ Finally, have we truly forgotten them¿