Hello! Thank you for checking in. I know I haven’t posted in a while. I have been travelling almost every weekend and trying to get all my last minute site visits and souvenirs purchased before I head out of the country next week.
Finally, I can post about my visits to the refugee camp in Jhapa and I’ll have a few other more tourist-y posts over the course of the next few days.
The road to Jhapa
Like many trips here, everything seems to be planned at the last minute. A Nepali journalist I met happened to be going to Jhapa to do his own writing on the refugee crisis.H e knew he was going but didn’t know when…until a day or two before departure.
I don’t think it can be stressed enough that you need to be flexible when traveling in Nepal. But you neeeeed to be flexible when traveling in Nepal.
The bus left on a Wednesday morning, 6am. The bus didn’t arrive until 7. Not too bad.
The trip to Jhapa is long and winding, East, through the mountains into the rural plains. Total time? 12 hours. A drive that would take 9 if you didn’t stop. at least 3 or 4 of those hours were spent in the mountains. Turn left, turn right, turn left, turn right. Up a few hundred meters, and back down…and back up. Parts of the road flooded from the heavy monsoon rains but it doesn’t stop the caravans of travelers. The roads can’t accommodate the large city or tour buses only twelve passenger vans, jeeps, and motorbikes.
Out of the mountains the roads are flat. Think Ohio. and nothing to the right or left of you except rice paddies and corn.
It’s hot. It’s humid. But at least the air is cleaner than KTM.
Thursday: Beldangi Camp
There are two refugee camps remaining. The first I visited is called Beldangi II, the larger of the remaining two.
Now. It was a little risky going to the camp. I was supposed to have documentation from the government giving me permission for entry (which was a whole process in and of itself) which I was denied. The government is starting to get more strict on visa permissions and tourism in general. Understandably, why would any government want a tourist to see something that can be perceived as shameful to a nation?
The Bhutanese refugee crisis started as far back as the 1950’s with xenophobic legislation targeting the Lhotshampa (ethnic Nepali), more continued to be passed well into the 1970’s restricting rights and citizenship of people who had lived in the country for decades. The repercussions weren’t fully felt until the 1980’s when 1/6 of the population of Bhutan was expelled from the country.
Many of the Bhutanese refugees resettled to a third country, mostly the United States however, at least 8,000 remain in Nepal, most in the camps.
I spoke with the camp secretary, Tikaram, the democratically elected leader of the camp. He also acts as a sort of social worker to help other residents with resettlement paperwork, school, etc. His entire family resides in the United States but he was denied resettlement for an unknown reason.
I also spoke with school leaders. Everyone is worried because funding is being cut by the United Nations so rations, monthly allowances, and education funds are bring majorly cut. Education is now only provided until grade 4 after which students will have to travel to local Nepal schools for education.
It’s a strange situation. The UN only has as much power as a nation lets it. It cannot make policy decisions for a country or force a sovereign nation to accept a group of people. Bhutan refuses to allow its people back into the country, some are still in Bhutan prisons. Nepal refuses to grant papers to refugees. Resettlement stopped as of December 2016 These people are caught in a policy limbo of two nations, the UN, and a world that refuses to resettle them.
Some of them remember Bhutan fondly and wish to return. Others, like Tikaram, were expelled when they were just 5 or 6 but still wish to go back. Many were born in the camps and have only known life as a stateless person.
People rarely have the opportunities to visit camps and its leaves a weird sensation to have seen, even if they are closing these ones down. The news rarely talks about the refugee crisis except maybe about Syria. The whole situation feels so hopeless, in Nepal and elsewhere, but people in the camp are clinging on to the optimism that they will return home one day. And I hope they do.