On World Refugee Day: Portraits of Resettlement and Unsettlement from Nepal

By Gloriana Sojo with contributions from Megha Rimal and Deepan Acahrya

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) designated June 20 World Refugee Day: the day the world celebrates ‘the strength, courage, and resilience of millions of refugees’. Much of what we know and see of refugees concerns their initial displacement in the midst of conflict and their final resettlement or repatriation – either back in their countries of origin or in new countries. These instances not only show refugees’ resilience amid violence, or in adapting to their new home countries, but also the generosity of organizations worldwide that are charged with caring for those who are stateless or in need of protection.

World Refugee Day is indeed a day to celebrate refugees’ resilience and the international community’s generosity. But in doing so, we usually miss a big chunk of the refugee story.  There are often years, or decades, of waiting: between the initial displacement, where we see images of refugees crossing deserts of Eastern Africa or the Middle East and living in blue UNHCR tents, and their final resettlement.

In Nepal, Bhutanese refugees have been waiting for decades. According to UNHCR data, more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees were temporarily settled in southeastern Nepal following their persecution by the Bhutanese government in the 1990s. On leaving Bhutan they were not allowed to stay in bordering India, so they finally settled in Nepal. However, the Nepalese government will not offer them a permanent home, India still does not want them, and Bhutan will not take them back. Their only option is third country resettlement. Since 2007, Bhutanese refugees have been resettled in 8 countries around the world. In 2014, roughly 90,000 had been resettled (around 70,000 in the United States alone) but about 20,000 remain in the camps, waiting for a resettlement date or an interview. Thousands remain unsettled.

These portraits shot in July 2014 are of refugees who had been waiting for years. While some were resettled, others remain unsettled. Abi doesn’t want to go anywhere. He has been in the camps for the last 22 years, and he would rather stay there. Hari and his family were resettled in Denver, Colorado after 22 years of waiting in the camps. Somba is headed to Nebraska as a single mother with her child. And Sita and her family are stuck in the camps.

Gloriana pic 1While most refugees can’t wait to leave the camps, Abi, 61, said he would be happy to die there. His wife and five children got resettled in Syracuse, N.Y. five years ago, but he stayed behind because he got injured and he didn’t think anyone would take care of him in the United States. So he prefers Nepal over the United States, and Bhutan over Nepal. But he is not sure if he is allowed to go back to Bhutan (he is not, the Bhutanese government is not willing to repatriate these refugees). And as for the United States, he says “that place is not my father’s property and it is not my mother’s dowry, my ancestors were all Nepali, if I die, I’m going to die in Nepal.”

Gloriana Pic 2Hari had been preparing to leave for the USA (which he says stands for “U Start Again”) for the last 10 years. He knows English, and knows about American politics (he followed the 2012 election, and was glad when President Obama won). When we met him in the camps, he told us he was ashamed that there weren’t enough stools for his guests in his hut. As we left, our fixer Deepan told us he hoped Hari would find enough guests for his stools in the United States.

Gloriana pic 3Hari’s wife is Nepali and not a Bhutanese refugee. This caused the resettlement process to slow down as they are in what the UNHCR calls a “mixed marriage,” but after more than five years of paper work, they got resettled in Denver, Colorado on September 16th, 2014.

Gloriana pic 4Hari’s oldest son played around hut 56 as we spoke with his parents.

Gloriana pic 5Somba is 22, divorced, and a single mother of a young child. She is getting resettled in Nebraska: she told us, she is not scared. When we spoke with her she still did not know when she was leaving, but Somba was ready. She was born in the camps, and wanted to start a new life.

Gloriana pic 6Sita, 36, is stuck in the camps. Born in India, she married to a Bhutanese refugee and they have been in the camps for 14 years. Since she is not officially a refugee, the resettlement process is much more complicated. “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.”

Gloriana pic 7Sita’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.

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. 

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