The influx of Bhutani refugees in eastern Nepal had made many residents of Jhapa, the easternmost state of Nepal, unhappy, two decades ago. The local governments were not ready to accommodate a large influx of people. Consequently, public service delivery was stretched to its limits. The incoming groups’ different cultural backgrounds incited frequent conflicts between locals and refugees. Slowly, the locals and the refugees adjusted to the situation, and the locals even employed refugees, who provided cheap labor, in construction and agriculture. However, now that refugees have started relocating to western countries, many Jhapalis are unhappy, again.
Of course, there were social ills in Jhapa even before the refugees arrived, but the arrival of Bhutani refugees and their subsequent resettlement in camps aggravated many of these social problems. For example, youth unemployment was already a significant problem. After their arrival, the refugees provided their labor and services at very low prices, since they were not legally permitted to work. Local unemployed youths did not view this favorably, and conflict ensued.
Refugees were also accused of bringing with them an acceptance of a culture of multiple spouses. Elders of local communities in Jhapa disapproved of this practice among the refugees. However, in the last two decades, the practice has seeped into the local culture. As a result, younger locals in communities next to refugee camps have also started taking multiple wives. This has created conflicts between older and younger generations of locals in communities surrounding the refugee camps in Jhapa.
Locals in surrounding communities also mention that in comparison to them, the refugees were more knowledgeable about medicinal herbs. They could identify medicinal herbs and plants in the forests around the camps. Since they were not allowed to work legally, many refugees took to the forests and collected these herbs, and sold them as a way to earn money. Locals accused them of over-harvesting the local forests, which ultimately affects the well being of the forests.
Because their incomes were limited, refugees could not afford fuel, and resorted to procuring firewood from nearby community forests. As a result, locals still accuse them of destroying local community forests by cutting down trees for firewood and by excessively grazing their cattle. The illegal use of community forests’ resources created a variety of conflicts between the refugee population and the locals. A consequence of blaming refugees for deforestation was that, in multiple occasions, family and friends of refugees who died in camps were declined necessary wood for cremation by the locals and community forestry groups.
Life continued in the refugee camps and in surrounding communities despite, and even amidst, various disagreements and conflicts. Slowly, the two sides learnt to live with each other. However, those among the locals who had failed to adapt to changing conditions had hoped that rehabilitation efforts by various agencies, such as the International Organization for Migration, would take care of the refugee nuisance, thus bringing good old peaceful times back. But current rehabilitation and resettlement efforts for refugees have not brought back the desired peace and harmony to the local communities. Instead, they have ushered in new sets of problems.
There has been an increase in intra-camp conflicts between refugees who want to leave, and those who don’t. Those who wish to leave cannot be faulted for their choice, because they have been stateless for over two decades, without any hope of obtaining a citizenship in Nepal. For the sake of their own future and of their children’s, resettlement in America, Canada or Australia is an enticing offer. It gives them an opportunity of citizenship and larger rights as an option to remaining stateless for who knows how many more years. Also, many have accepted the reality that Bhutan is not likely to ever accept them back.
The refugees who stay behind believe that seeking asylum represents a win for the brutal Bhutani monarchy.
However, a group of refugees who choose to stay behind in the camps abhor these asylum seekers. Those who have decided to stay behind claim to do so in order to keep fighting for their principles and rights. They believe that seeking asylum in the west represents a win for the brutal Bhutani monarchy, and a defeat for those who champion democratic ideals. Resettlement has polarized the camp population into factions, increasing intra-camp conflicts. Many have been hurt, a few even killed, during demonstrations and subsequent altercations between the two groups.
Those that have successfully resettled in the western countries frequently send remittance money to their friends and family left behind in camps in Jhapa. While remittance money helps refugees in camps to afford essentials and luxury goods that were beyond their means earlier, it has also fueled an increase in drug use among camp members, according to the locals in surrounding communities. As a result, locals accuse those left behind in camps as being “criminal types”, who are going to spoil the current and next generation of locals. Such accusations have further increased conflicts between refugees and locals.
There have also been economic impacts of the resettlement efforts. Local entrepreneurs who had spent exorbitant amounts of money to buy land and build shops near camp sites have suffered huge losses due to these efforts. Land and rent prices have fallen sharply in the surrounding areas. Local youths who went for overseas employment because they could not compete with cheap refugee labor are not coming back any time soon to work locally. So, local businesses now have a hard time finding sufficient labor. And thus the communities in Jhapa surrounding the refugee camp sites are back to being unhappy, again.