Let me begin with some good news. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that the 75,000th Bhutanese refugee has left Nepal’s refugee camps for resettlement in a new country. About 120,000 ethnic Nepalis were stripped of their citizenship and forced out of the country around 1990 and have been living in U.N. refugee camps in eastern Nepal ever since. That was about one-seventh of the population of Bhutan, the land that promotes the “gross national happiness” index, being expelled because of their religious, linguistic, and ethnic background. Beginning in 2007, eight countries have accepted the resettled refugees, led by the United States (which has taken in over 63,000), Canada (over 5,000), Australia (over 3,800), along with Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. I’ve had the privilege of visiting two of the camps, in 2010, thanks to friends in this country I met online while they were still living in the camps. Now they live in Chicago, Baltimore, San Antonio, and Manchester, N.H. The two camps I visited, Sanischare and Beldangi, are the only two remaining now of the original seven.
I am still in touch with some of the good people I met there, whether they are in Baltimore, Scranton, or Tasmania. The most impressive thing about the camps was the availability of education, up to 10th grade or beyond, for the generation of refugee children who grew up there, resulting in nearly 100% literacy for people under the age of 24. The first few arrivals in this country will soon be getting their American citizenship, after having been stateless, or without nationality, for over twenty years.
The U.N. estimates there are still some 60,000 Bhutanese refugees remaining in Nepal, of whom another 15,000 or so will be resettled by the end of 2013.
At the same time, the very countries that have been generous in resettlement of the refugees have, detain, and deport thousands of asylum-seekers and refugees who arrive on their shores, desperate for safety, from such war-torn countries as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq. They make the barriers greater to those who try to find safety – as guaranteed under international law – and spend millions of dollars and euros on enforcement and ways to keep legitimate refugees out and send others, including children, back to danger. I’ll be writing more about this in the future.
Meanwhile, when we are generous, we are capable of great things. Welcome friends.