Interview | “Nepal government should consider providing residency cards to the Bhutanese who are yet to be resettled:” DB Rai, President, Global Bhutanese Organization-GBO 

“Advocating for the provision of residency cards for Bhutanese refugees who have not yet been resettled is a crucial issue to address their long-term needs and rights.”

NL Today

  • Read Time 8 min.

Kathmandu: In August 2020, the Global Bhutanese Organization (GBO) was established with the primary objective of providing assistance to those residing in refugee camps in Nepal. Following the resettlement of Bhutanese refugees in various third countries, only two camps remained in Eastern Nepal, namely Beldangi, Damak -3, Jhapa, and Pathari Sanischare-10, Morang, Nepal. The closure of other camps resulted in the shutdown of six schools in Jhapa and one school in the Morang district. The students who were previously enrolled in these schools were subsequently transferred to nearby local community schools. 

However, a pressing issue arose for GBO as the education of more than 1,500 children residing in the Bhutanese Refugee camp in Eastern Nepal became uncertain due to the gradual withdrawal of sponsors from the site. The organization recognized the urgent need to address this situation and ensure the continuity of education for these children. Ashim Neupane of Nepal Live Today talked to DB Rai, president of Global Bhutanese Organization, on how the organization is working in Nepal, among other issues. Excerpts:    

To start with, how is GBO working in Nepal? What are your priority areas? 

As part of our project, we are committed to providing primary education to children between the ages of 3 and 6, encompassing kindergarten to grade 1. Currently, our project supports 285 students for Early Childhood primary education in two camps located in Jhapa and Morang, Nepal. They are  Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC) Beldangi School in Beldangi, Damak–3, Jhapa, and Shree Batika Bal Bikash Kendra School in Pathari Sanischare-10, Morang, Nepal. In addition to Bhutanese refugees, we also extend our support to students facing financial difficulties, as recommended by the ward offices. 

Our mission is rooted in humanitarianism, aiming to give back to the community, whether it be Bhutanese refugees or Nepali individuals in need. These two schools also accommodate more than 30 Nepali students. This inclusive approach highlights our unwavering commitment to a single goal—providing education for all, irrespective of their background.

In addition to our focus on education, we are actively involved in addressing health-related issues. As part of our efforts, we have provided one Health staff member to AMDA Hospital, Damak, Jhapa. This staff member is dedicated to assisting Bhutanese refugees when they visit the hospital, offering support and guidance throughout their medical journey. Also, we have taken the initiative to ensure the staff members with medical insurance, ensuring their well-being and security. By extending our involvement to the healthcare sector, we aim to provide comprehensive assistance to the Bhutanese refugee community and contribute to their overall well-being. Our commitment to both education and health underscores our holistic approach to serving the needs of the community.

What types of support do you provide to the Bhutanese refugees in the camps?

Our organization has developed an expansion plan that encompasses various aspects of support for the community in the camps. One of our primary objectives is to increase the capacity of the schools, aiming to provide education up to grade three for children. We recognize the importance of a strong educational foundation and want to ensure that children have access to education in their immediate surroundings. We are planning to introduce new health programs to cater to the healthcare needs of the community. 

This includes establishing health camps within the camps, where residents can receive medical attention and care. Also, we aim to set up care houses to provide support and care for the elderly population residing in the camps. To further enhance healthcare services, we are planning to deploy a medical team to Nepal for a specific period.

This initiative will enable the people in the camps to receive much-needed medical attention and support. In our efforts to improve the financial stability of the camp residents, we will provide assistance and training in areas of livelihood programs such as vegetable farming and poultry farming among others. By promoting these sustainable livelihood options, we aim to empower individuals to generate income and enhance their overall financial well-being. Moreover, as part of our expansion plan, we intend to build exceptional primary-level schools in Pathari Sanischare  and Beldangi, Damak.

Having schools within the camps will greatly benefit parents and children, eliminating the need for long-distance travel. Parents can conveniently drop off and pick up their children, saving time and ensuring easier access to education. By implementing these initiatives, we strive to create a more holistic and supportive environment for the camp residents, addressing their educational, healthcare, and financial needs, while prioritizing convenience and well-being.

In your view, what are the major problems faced by the Bhutanese community in refugee camps in Jhapa?

Currently, one of the major challenges faced by parents in the camps is the need to send their children outside the camps for better education. Despite their financial limitations, parents strive to provide their children with access to quality education and often seek funds from individuals and communities in different countries to cover various costs such as monthly fees and tiffin expenses. Unfortunately, many families cannot afford to pay the school fees, and it is through the support of various organizations and donors that funding for education is made possible.  The residents in the camps are in despair as they are unable to be resettled and face obstacles in returning to Bhutan. 

Also, some of the donors are gradually withdrawing their support, adding to their problems. Additionally, the people in the camps suffer from various diseases, further exacerbating their plight.

So how do you plan to address these challenges?

We aim to address these challenges by connecting with Bhutanese refugees who have successfully resettled in third countries and have pursued careers in the medical field as doctors and nurses. Through these connections, we can facilitate support for those in the refugee camps who are in dire need of medical assistance.

To sustain our efforts, the annual budget for the project is estimated at approximately 5.5 million Nepali rupees. Fortunately, the community has shown significant support and willingness to give back to their fellow community members. In an upcoming third Annual Convention of  GBO, we expect the presence of donors who will contribute towards raising funds for the projects.

Prior to the completion of the resettlement process in 2017, financially capable individuals could send their children to schools outside the camps, with organizations such as UNHCR and CARITAS Nepal running schools up to the secondary level. However, those without financial means were deprived of education. This lack of access led to children as old as 6 or 7 years of age being unable to start schooling. The closure of the schools in Pathari Sanischare in 2017 and 2020 in Beldangi, Damak further highlighted the urgent need for intervention. 

As a response, we initiated the project, which has transformed the school into a daycare-like facility, providing education and meals to children. This arrangement also allows parents to work during the daytime.

Through these efforts, we aim to bridge the educational gap, provide basic needs, and empower the residents of the refugee camps to improve their circumstances and create a brighter future for themselves and their children.

Earlier you said some donors are withdrawing their support to the camps. What would you like to say to the donors in this context?

The success of our project can be attributed to the generosity and support of our donors. Thus, I would like to say that now is the opportune moment for us to give back to the community where we ourselves grew up and spent our formative years. We appeal to you to kindly consider donating towards the betterment of children’s education. 

By contributing to this cause, you will be actively participating in a humanitarian endeavor that aims to provide quality education and opportunities to those in need. The impact of our efforts extends beyond the Bhutanese refugee community, as even the Nepali community within Nepal has shown its support. We also get donations of NPR 1.1 million from two organizations related to Nepal, which demonstrates the collective commitment to this cause. We humbly request you to join us in this noble initiative and become a part of this great cause. Your contribution, big or small, will make a significant difference in the lives of these children. Together, we can empower them with education and equip them with the tools they need to build a brighter future. We extend our deepest gratitude for your consideration and continued support in this worthy endeavor.

You said the refugees in Nepal camps still face a lot of problems. In your view, what should the Nepal government do to facilitate the process?

Bhutanese refugees have completed the resettlement process but are unable to return to Bhutan. Besides , the refugees in the camps also face financial hardships. In this context, it would indeed be beneficial for the Nepal government to consider providing some form of residency card or documentation to these individuals. This would not only recognize their presence and contributions to Nepal but also provide them with a sense of belonging and legal status in the country they have come to call home, while also making it easier for them to explore job opportunities or start their enterprises to meet their financial needs.

Residency cards or similar documentation would offer the refugees the opportunity to access essential services, pursue education and employment opportunities, and integrate into the society where they have spent a significant portion of their lives. It would be a step towards ensuring their rights and facilitating their inclusion in the local communities.

Advocating for the provision of residency cards for Bhutanese refugees who have not yet been resettled is a crucial issue to address their long-term needs and rights. It may require coordination and dialogue between the concerned authorities, organizations working with refugees, and the refugee community itself. By recognizing their presence and granting them legal status, Nepal can further contribute to their overall well-being and provide them with a sense of security and stability. When this is done, all the Bhutanese refugees will have legal documentation, and they will pay taxes to the government, get involved in business, and contribute to the economy.

The resettlement process in  eight different countries has been completed.  But other countries might still  be interested  to resettle the remaining refugees back in Nepal.  In this context, it would also be worthwhile for the government of Nepal to identify the other interested countries and initiate communication with them to resettle the remaining refugees.

Also, the government of Nepal should take the initiative to engage in dialogue with the Bhutanese government in order to find solutions for the remaining Bhutanese refugees currently residing in two camps in Jhapa, who express their desire to return to Bhutan. Ministerial-level talks between Nepal and Bhutan have not taken place since negotiations stalled after the 15th meeting in Thimphu in 2003. The government of Nepal should prioritize this issue and proactively initiate the necessary discussions.

The fake refugee scam is being investigated by the Nepali authorities at the moment. As an activist, how have you assessed this scam?

The issue of fake refugee scams has undeniably tarnished the global image of the Nepali community. The revelation of such scams has raised concerns and cast doubts on the authenticity of some refugee claims. These fraudulent activities not only affect the credibility of genuine refugee cases but also create a negative perception of the entire Nepali community.

For us, the arrest of Tek Nath Rizal is deeply concerning. Rizal, a prominent advocate for the rights of the Bhutanese people, has dedicated his life to fighting for justice and the welfare of the Bhutanese refugee community. He has endured years of imprisonment for his unwavering commitment to their cause. His relentless efforts have made significant contributions to raising awareness about the challenges faced by the Bhutanese refugees. In this context, the framing of Tek Nath Rizal by the political leadership in Nepal is distressing. It highlights a grave injustice and an abuse of power.

It is essential that the Nepali leadership takes immediate action to restore confidence and trust in the country’s refugee processes, while also upholding the principles of justice and human rights. Addressing the issue of fake refugee scams, safeguarding the rights of genuine refugees, and ensuring the fair treatment of individuals like Tek Nath Rizal are crucial steps towards rebuilding the image of the Nepali community globally and upholding Nepal’s commitment to human rights and justice.