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Bhutanese refugees and locals clash over resources

[Nepal] Bhutanese refugees are protesting at Kathmandu at the lack of a settlement to their plight. [Date picture taken: 07/18/2006]
Nepal's Bhutanese refugees live in seven refugee camps in the east of the Himalayan nation (NareshNewar/IRIN)

Bhutanese refugees in Nepal are concerned over their security after clashes involving refugees and the local community.

For the first time in 16 years, a violent confrontation took place on 22 February between Bhutanese refugees and local villagers when the latter tried to stop the refugees from taking wood from the forest near the Sanischare refugee camp in Pathari village, 600km east of the capital, Kathmandu.

One refugee was killed and several others were badly injured. The locals called for an indefinite strike, demanding that the authorities close the refugee camp and refugees no longer “encroach” on their forest.

United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) officials told IRIN on Tuesday that the situation had since calmed down inside the camp. But some villagers were still furious and insisted the Bhutanese refugees be relocated.

“We don’t know how that is possible because there are thousands of refugee families living there,” said Ran Bahadur Basnet, a Bhutanese political leader. More than 16,000 refugees live in Sanischare camp alone.

Since 1990, Bhutanese citizens of Nepalese origin - known as Lhotsampas in Bhutan – have been evicted from their homes by the Bhutanese government, which introduced a new law stripping them of citizenship and civil rights because of their Nepalese ancestry.

An estimated 106,000 refugees have been sheltered in the seven camps in east Nepal, where they receive humanitarian aid from UNHCR, World Food Programme (WFP) and local charities.

All 15 rounds of talks between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan to resolve the problem have come to nothing. The refugees are becoming even more desperate, their health is worsening and their children mostly are not able to attend schools, aid workers say.

The recent violence has caused serious concern among the Bhutanese, who are now desperate to return. “We have now reached an understanding with the local people, but there is no guarantee that such an incident will not be repeated,” said Thinley Penjore, another Bhutanese leader.

“The refugees are becoming increasingly vulnerable and now there is really a need for resolving the problem,” he added.

The refugees are demanding that they should be repatriated to Bhutan, or resettled in a third country.

UNHCR officials have asked the refugees to show restraint and abide by the laws of the country and avoid any confrontation with the local community.

The refugees say they have not violated any laws and all they were doing was to collect fuel wood. Until January 2006, the refugees had been provided with kerosene by UNHCR but it proved to be too expensive. Their only source of fuel is charcoal briquettes provided by UNHCR, which they say is not enough.

But UNHCR officials were upbeat about solving the problem. “We hope that permanent solutions for their future will be found soon, including resettlement to third countries for which the US as well as other resettlement recipient countries have made generous offers,” said Abraham Abraham, UNHCR representative in Nepal.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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