Stuck: Time is running out for non-refugee spouses of Bhutanese refugees

Photo by Gloriana Sojo

Photo by Gloriana Sojo

by Gloriana Sojo

Sita was not forced to seek asylum in the corner of Nepal. She was not persecuted in Bhutan, and she was not born in the Beldangi refugee camp.

Sita went to Beldangi by choice. She married into it. And now, she’s stuck.

Originally from India, Sita met a Bhutanese refugee in the northern Indian border province of Sikkim, and ran away with him. She was excited to see what her new husband’s home looked like. But when she arrived at the Beldangi refugee camp 14 years ago, she was disappointed to see the bamboo huts were all exactly the same.

In 2006, 108,000 refugees lived in seven camps in southeast Nepal after having being persecuted in Bhutan about 20 years ago. The Bhutanese government is still not willing to take them back, Nepal won’t offer them a permanent home and India doesn’t want them. The camps are being closed down, and third-country resettlement is their only option.

According to UNHCR data, more than 90,000 Bhutanese refugees had been resettled in eight countries around the world by September 2014. Sita was not one of them. She is one of the 20,000 still in the camps.

Walking around Beldangi camp, it is clear everyone knows where everyone else is in the resettlement process. “He’s got a date,” our fixer says, meaning that the man he’s referring to already knows when he will be leaving and where he is going. Those are the luckiest ones. Others are “waiting for a date,” which means they know where they are going but they don’t know when – it could be one month or it could be three. Some others have only “passed the medical.” They probably don’t know where they are going – much less when – but because they have passed the medical exams and the interviews, they at least know they are going. And then there are the unsettled refugees, those for whom the “process is stalled.” They don’t even know if they are going, let alone where or when.

Sita is in the last group. Whatever choices she had when she married and ran away to Nepal are long gone. Since she is not officially a Bhutanese refugee – and is therefore in what the system calls a ‘mixed marriage’ – she cannot be resettled with her refugee husband and three children following the same process. Instead she needs papers, some form of identification, an Indian passport. It’s a struggle just to get enough rice for her children every day. Sita can’t possibly afford the $1,000 in fees and bribes to get a passport.

Sita could also decide to stay behind and wait for her family to sponsor her once they have settled in the United States, where their relatives have gone. The U.S. has various programs that allow refugees to sponsor immediate family members. She would have to provide a marriage certificate (which she doesn’t have because she married informally), and a birth certificate. Without these documents, her last option would be to find two people to sign an affidavit confirming her relationship with her husband and children.

But there are two main problems with this second option. First, Sita is unaware it exists. Second, and perhaps most importantly, what happens to Sita if she stays behind? With her refugee family in the camps she can collect her husband’s food ration and live in her husband’s hut. But since the UNHCR has repeatedly stated that wives of refugees cannot gain refugee status in the camps, it is unlikely that she would continue to receive food or be allowed to stay in the camp after her family is resettled.

Sita also could leave the camp when her family does, but go to a different place. She could return to India alone, and her husband and children could join his extended family in Buffalo, New York.

Instead, for a lack of knowledge and papers, they have chosen to stay together in the camp. They share hut 61, where her children run around the dirt floor. The cracks between the bamboo sticks on the wall give way to a welcome breeze in the hot summer monsoon months, when the temperature rises to over 100 F. Our upper lips are covered in sweat. But in the winter, the damp, cold breeze is chilling. So Sita, like many others, has covered the cracks with newspapers and old school notebook paper. Math equations and news headlines decorate the patchy bamboo walls.

Through the years, refugees have decorated their dimly lit huts. Not just with news headlines, or math equations, but also with images of Hindu gods, of Jesus, and in one case, of The Obamas. Through the years too, refugees in the Beldangi camp became a family. They celebrate religious festivals together, they walk into each other’s huts as if they were their own, they know who are the abusive husbands and where the binge drinkers live.

But Sita has always been on the edge. On the edge of India, on the edge of Nepal, and on the edge of this close-knit refugee community- because she is not one of them, she is not a refugee. “I’m inside the camp, and still an outsider,” she said.

Yet this camp has been, nonetheless, her community. And as camps get closed, as refugees leave, and as the food ration shrinks, those who stay are left unsettled.

Bistari, bistari (slowly, slowly), all the food is going to be gone. Before, we used to get soap, we used to get gas, now everything is gone, vegetables are also gone, almost everything. Now there’s talk about how we’re not going to get rice either,” she says. “Aba ke hunchha ni aba (now what)?”

“The organization [UNHCR] says that even if there are two refugees left in the camp, they are still going to look after us, tara ke ke (but who knows),” says Sita. She doubts the organization would look after only two people.

“If there is no one looking after us, you know how they say if a kid does not have his mother or father they become an orphan? Our situation is very similar to that,” she says.

Photo by Gloriana Sojo

Photo by Gloriana Sojo

Her children, who were born in the camp, have questions about why they are still there. Their friends have left. With tears in her eyes, she tells us: “I’m so frustrated, helpless, I even thought of committing suicide because I don’t have answers to my kids’ questions. My youngest child every time he sees a plane flying he says ‘Mom when are we going to get on that plane?’”

“It’s because of me that my husband and my kids are stuck here,” she says, in tears, with two of her children sitting next to her, watching. “If I do end up killing myself, then the UN can take my family, my kids to the United States.”

When Sita talks, her gaze wanders off, as if searching for answers to her children’s questions, searching for a way out. But she doesn’t get a way out. She gets phone calls. Refugees call from the US with news of cars and TVs, jobs and money. When Sita speaks with her resettled in-laws in Buffalo, she gets desperate, she tells us, from still being cornered in Beldangi – even when the news from abroad is not all rosy.

She recalls a recent phone conversation with her didi (older sister-in-law).

“I was telling her ‘You know everyone’s leaving, all our neighbors, they’re all gone, and we’re stuck here, what should we do, didi? Do you think we’re going to get stuck here forever?’”

Ke garnu (what to do), Sita?” her didi replied. “Only young brother has a job, we have to pay the rent, we have to pay electricity, sometimes we have work, sometimes we don’t. Dad is sick and mom can’t hear properly.”

Sita, who speaks no English, is not deterred. In America she would work hard (she’s not sure doing what). She wants her children to have a better education, go wherever they want, have a chance to ride in a car.

But to start this new life, Sita needs documents. This is what she hears over and over again when she goes to the UNHCR offices to fill in form after form. Yet Sita has no documents or money to get these documents. And she is not alone.

In 2014, there were at least 1,600 mixed marriages, according to a local news source. Another local source reported that as of 2011, only five (0.1 percent) of the 5,000 resettled families were ‘mixed status’ families.

After years of waiting, some women married to Bhutanese refugees have been able to provide identification documents and be resettled with their families. Yet for those – like Sita – who do not have documents, the process is much less certain. In 2011, after 12 women who married Bhutanese refugees fasted for 12 days asking for refugee status, Stephane Jaquemet, the UNHCR representative in Nepal, stated that resettling countries would not accept non-Bhutanese refugees. To complicate matters, he noted that children of mixed marriages are considered Bhtuanese refugees.

This left Sita even more puzzled.

“The kids that I gave birth to are Bhutanese,” she said. “Then why am I not? This is what I want to know.


Gloriana Sojo-Lara is pursuing a M.A. in Geography with a focus on migration at the George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC and she is simultaneously enrolled in a Geographic Information Systems certificate program. She has a BA in International Affairs and a minor in Journalism from GWU. Gloriana’s interest in migration goes back to high school when she first began researching the Nicaragua migration to Costa Rica, her home country. In the last five years she has conducted independent research on migration in five countries, from South and North America to refugee camps in southeastern Nepal. Gloriana is currently working at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC and creates infographics for the Dream Project-Va, a non-profit that supports low-income immigrant students. 

Megha Rimal and Deepan Acahrya contributed to this article.

One comment

  1. […] Sita’s son, who was born in the camps, asks Sita when they will get on a plane to go to the United States. His friends at school are leaving, but he is stuck. And Sita has no answers to her son’s questions. Read more about Sita and her son’s story here. […]


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