Bhutanese refugees tell dark side of Himalayan kingdom
Published: Tuesday, December 09, 2008
If Canadians know anything about Bhutan, it likely revolves around the tiny Himalayan nation's seemingly enlightened monarchs, often praised for ushering in democracy and championing a state-sponsored philosophy dubbed Gross National Happiness.
But this week, the first of 5,000 refugees from Bhutan arrived in Canada, offering a reminder of the dark side of the country's recent history. The refugees — ethnic Nepalese and mostly Hindu — were effectively forced out of Bhutan by that same, Buddhist royal family almost 20 years ago and have been languishing in camps in Nepal ever since.
Their unusual story has continued with the Canadian resettlement offer. Some Bhutanese refugees believe no one should leave the camps until their homeland lets them return and, as part of a sometimes violent internal dispute, have spread misinformation about Canada to discourage immigration here.
Prospective migrants have even been told they will be forced into labour camps in the Arctic if they move to Canada.
“There are lots of rumours circulating,” said Yogendra Shakya of Access Alliance, a Toronto-based social service agency, who visited some of the camps in August. “I was asked a lot Is it true that Canada is so cold that you can't have children there, and that's why they want us to go there?' ”
The resettlement program is also part of a new approach by the federal government to sponsor large groups of refugees en masse. In support of the project, Citizenship and Immigration Canada this month put out a $1.3-million contract to conduct advance health screening of the Bhutanese coming to Canada and provide treatment for tuberculosis and other conditions if necessary before they relocate.
Refugee sagas usually begin with an infamously despotic leader, or with years of war and strife. This one unfolded differently. Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan's king until recently, has been widely praised for lifting his people from near-medieval conditions, beefing up public education and health care and opening the window to the outside world. He also promoted Gross National Happiness, a creed which holds that material wealth should not come at the expense of spiritual wellbeing, the environment or culture.
Two years ago, the hugely popular king converted Bhutan into the world's newest democracy and abdicated in favour of his Western-educated son. Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was crowned just last month, earning glowing press coverage as a handsome and charismatic monarch of the people.
Almost forgotten was a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when more than 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepalese origin — a sixth of the population — departed the country, leaving Bhutan largely to the majority Kruk people.
According to a 2006 article by the UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, “tens of thousands” were evicted, often after being made to sign “voluntary” migration certificates. An Immigration Canada spokeswoman said the camps' residents were “forced” to leave Bhutan, while a 2007 Human Rights Watch report states that most, if not all, the refugees in Nepal have a right under international law to return to Bhutan.
A spokesman for the Bhutanese government, however, argued on Tuesday that few of the refugees are actually from his country, suggesting that many impoverished residents of the region settled in the camps to take advantage of services funded by the international community.
Bhutan has no ill feelings toward its remaining Nepalese minority, with some even serving now as cabinet ministers, added Tshewang Dorji, counsellor with Bhutan's mission to the UN.
“Nobody was forced to leave … The government didn't want the [ethnic Nepalese] people to leave,” he insisted. “People who have ill feelings toward Bhutan have blown this issue out of proportion.”
Regardless, repeated efforts to win the refugees' repatriation failed, until eventually a group of seven Western countries, including the United States, Australia and Britain, agreed to accept about 70,000 of them. Canada is taking 5,000 over the next five years.
And yet the humanitarian offer met some stiff resistance in the camps, with certain groups fearing that mass resettlement would spell the end of their efforts to get back to Bhutan itself.
“There have been fairly organized efforts to discourage migration,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. Word spread, for instance, that refugees who ended up here “would have to work at camps at the north pole,” she said.
To try to set the record straight, Canada has distributed leaflets with accurate information about this country, and is further briefing those selected to come here, said Danielle Norris, an Immigration Canada spokeswoman.
The years of living in refugee camps, unable to officially work to support themselves, has taken its toll on the displaced Bhutanese, said Mr. Shakya, who is of Nepalese origin himself. “Depression, stress is very, very common in the camps,” he said.
And yet, he said the refugees have strived to make the most of their grim predicament. Levels of education are higher than in the Nepalese population outside the camps, and many speak fluent English, he said.
Lately, it seems the refugees have also come around to the idea of setting down roots in the West, with many believing they can continue to fight for return to Bhutan from their new homes, said Mr. Shakya.
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