Sunday, November 08, 2009

Bhutanese Refugees: Repatriation vs Resettlement

Beldangi Refugee camp, JHAPA–Here, in this sprawling refugee camp, Bishnu Kumari Khadka (see pic) exudes a calm that doesn’t beget one whose husband has recently been murdered. Karna Bahadur Khadka, Bishnu’s husband, was stabbed to death one evening while returning home. But his murder seems to be just the tip of the iceberg in this largest concentration of Bhutanese refugees, a group that is increasingly becoming divided over the issues of third-country resettlement and repatriation back to Bhutan.

The seven camps scattered across Eastern Nepal were supposed to be a safe haven for the Lhotsampas (Nepali-speaking southern Bhutanese), who escaped the brutal repression of the Bhutanese government in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Now, death threats and criminal activities within the camps have made the refugees qualm, even as Karna Bahadur’s murder brought to the fore simmering tensions between the two groups.

Karna Bahadur’s murder is not the first inside the camp. In April this year, Shanti Ram Nepal, a former camp secretary was murdered. Today, those who oppose repatriation in favour of third-country resettlement have begun receiving death threats by underground outfits. One such organisation is the Druk Leopard, which began pasting computer printouts warning eight prominent refugees of dire physical consequences if they didn’t leave the camps with their families. Their crime: they were accused of betraying the cause of repatriation back to Bhutan and instead compromising on third-country resettlement.

Indeed, third-country resettlement seems to be a contentious issue among the refugees. At least 22,000 have been resettled in developed countries, mainly the U.S., as Bhutan vehemently refuses to negotiate and repatriate any of the 106,000 refugees (UNHCR 2005) from the seven camps. A 2007 Human Rights Watch report commented that refugees who have favoured resettlement have been threatened and intimidated by groups who see repatriation as the only solution.

In fact, the report is quoted as saying, “They (those in favour of repatriation) accuse those refugees who speak out in favor of resettlement of betraying the cause of the refugees and of aiding and abetting the continued oppression of the remaining ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan.”

The report also declared that resettlement simply meant that it allowed the Bhutanese government to get away with the expulsion of at least a 100,000 of its own citizens in violation of international law. The report quoted a camp secretary, Hari Adhikari Bangaley, as saying he had been physically threatened by pro-repatriation refugees. “They have damaged my motorbike. They have surrounded me and threatened to cut my throat.”

The motorcycle is for many the only means to commute between the various refugee camps, and on the evening of Sept. 8, Karna Bahadur was riding one on his way back home from Damak when he was attacked and stabbed by two assailants. “One tried to insert a rod in the front tyre”, recalls his nephew Dambar Karki, who was with Karna at the time, “while the other pushed him to the ground.”

Though Karna’s name wasn’t on the list of the eight refugees threatened by Druk Leopard, he seemed to have rankled someone else. On Oct. 2, the Armed Police Force, which is tasked with the security of the camps, arrested Yadav Gurung and Pahal Man Rai in connection with the murder.

The two confessed that S.B. Subba, chairperson of the Human Rights Organisation of Bhutan, was involved in the murder. According to the Bhutan News Service, a website operated by refugee journalists, Gurung also disclosed that Subba operated the United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan, an underground outfit that claimed responsibility for a series of bomb blasts that rocked Bhutan in early 2008, and was responsible for the murder, along with Gurung’s sister-in-law. Both were at large at the time of writing, and though the motive behind the murder hasn’t been revealed, it increasingly looks like a conflict between two separate schools of thought within the camps.

For Karna Bahadur was also a mediator, a go-between in several of the disputes that routinely cropped up in the camps. On the day he was murdered, he was returning from his nephew’s funeral. Now, people speak about Karna’s funeral—estimates say there were at least 10,000 participants.

Karna, his relatives say, was an ardent supporter of repatriation, which deepens the mystery behind his murder. His younger brother has resettled in the U.S., something he had been opposing so far. But now, with him gone and with four children, Bishnu Kumari says she may favour resettlement.

The police here say they have beefed up security following the murder, initiating foot patrols and installing several checkpoints with bamboo barriers on the road leading to the camp. The police are also taking an inventory of all the motorcycles owned by the refugees. “Refugee camps are by nature vulnerable places, but we’re doing our best to maintain safety,” says Inspector Gandhiv Raj Syangtan, in-charge of the Beldangi-based Armed Police Force.

In the murky milieu of the Bhutanese refugee camps, internal tensions may finally be reaching a boiling point.

Originally published in The Kathmandu Post on Saturday.

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