Bhutanese refugees embrace change in land of the lucky

By Esther Nimmo

It was the second time I had travelled back to Nepal without leaving the city of Adelaide. I pulled up in front of Indra Adhikari’s house in my bright red Holden Barina, creaking and sweating.

I wondered whether I was dressed appropriately for the interview.

I hadn’t put a lot of thought into what I was wearing when I’d left the house in the morning and as I glanced down to check that my chest and neck were adequately concealed I noted the glare of my over-exposed white stems peeping out from beneath my dress.

‘Too late now’ I thought as I tugged and smoothed out the crinkles in the chiffon.

The house looked like every other house on the suburban street. Neat and unassuming.

I knocked on the aluminium screen door. The unforgiving sunlight reflected on the white lacquer. Over the threshold I was transported to Nepal (If only the portal was real and when I stepped back out I would be stepping into the sultry heat of a Chitwan summer).

Hajuraama was there along with a handful of didis and bahinis who I would forgive for wondering what in the world I was doing in their living room.

The familiar smell of spices warmed my nostrils. I longed for the earthy walls and floors of mud houses and the incessant beeping of tinny horns – a constant reminder of life.

Alas, I was not in Nepal but in Blair Athol interviewing recently arrived, Nepalese speaking Bhutanese refugee cum permanent resident of Australia, Indra Adhikari.

IPhone recorder switched on, the story unfolds.

Bhutanese refugees
The young voices from Shangri-La!

On Sunday 9th March 2008, after living in limbo in refugee camps for 15 years, 17 Bhutanese families flew from the eastern part of Nepal into Kathmandu. Many of the families travelled on to the United States, some went to New Zealand and some to Canada. On the 13th May, 2008, the first two of hundreds of families of Bhutanese refugees to travel to Australia arrived in Adelaide.

Both Nepal and Bhutan are nations rich in culture, religion and history.

Regrettably this rich culture has at times been a breeding ground for social problems that have led to human rights abuses, involuntary expatriation and war.

There have been many occasions when I have felt disenchanted by the vacuousness of Australian culture.

At worst, Australian society could be described as an infantile mish-mash of British, European and American values coloured by the influx of multicultural migration that has occurred since the abolition of the White Australia Policy.

After speaking with Adikhari my cynical view of Australia softened somewhat in response to his words.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the people of Nepal were invited to populate the lowlands of southern Bhutan. Until the mid-1980’s the Lhotshampa (Nepalese speaking Bhutanese) lived peacefully in Bhutan maintaining their distinctive Nepali culture and Hindu religion, keeping limited contact with the Dzongkhan speaking Buddhist Bhutanese in the north (Druks).

China India
Nepal and Bhutan between two emerging giants!

In the late 1980’s the Bhutanese government established the “One People, One Culture” policy or “Bhutanization” to reinforce Bhutan’s national identity. The policy triggered human rights violations such as imprisonment without trial, detention and torture.

By 1992, tensions between Buddhist and Hindu Bhutanese had peaked and resulted in the exodus of around 100,000 Lhotsampa to UN run refugee camps in the east of Nepal. Bhutan’s Buddhist King was weary of the growing population of Nepalese speaking Bhutanese who made up almost one sixth of the country’s population by the early 1990’s.

The government of Bhutan repeatedly declared that the refugees were not Bhutanese nationals, claiming they were voluntary migrants who surrendered their citizenship when they left Bhutan. The Nepalese and Bhutanese governments finally introduced a process for authenticating and classifying refugees in 2001. This process has attracted international disapproval for lack of transparency, excluding the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and failing to fairly consider refugees’ claims to Bhutanese citizenship.

In 1992, Adikhari moved with his family to the Beldangi II camp in eastern Nepal. He was ten years old. They lived there indefinitely until September of 2010 when the entire family volunteered to be resettled in Adelaide, South Australia.

Adikhari lived in Kathmandu between 2001 and 2010 and studied economics at Tribhuvan University. Adikhari also worked as a journalist for the well-known Nepalese web publication, Nepal News.

Although it was not officially permitted for residents to leave the refugee camp, many, including Adikhari, did leave to provide an income for their families who would otherwise survive on the meagre food allowance provided in the camps.

According to Adhikari, refugees living within the camps confines had very limited access to facilities such as transport and communications, with Internet only becoming available in the last 2 or 3 years and on a very small scale. Telephones were unavailable and post communication subject to the unreliability of the Nepalese postal system.

The United Nations World Food Program (UNWFP) provided the camp’s residents with 5 kilos of rice per person every fortnight costing them what is equivalent to AUD$3-AUD$4. They also provided lentils, cooking oil, sugar, turmeric and a small amount of vegetables. Meat was just a dream to the camps inhabitants.

Refugees received very, very basic clothing and no cooking utensils from the UN, therefore, many were required to leave the camps and work (often for a very low wage) to pay for these things. On arrival the UN provided families with bamboo to build their homes however electricity was unavailable. The UN funded the construction of Nepalese style toilets, small unattached buildings outside of the home.

Medical facilities were virtually non-existent in the camps. The only medicine provided to refugees was paracetamol. Pregnant women were expected to give birth within the camps periphery and were only transported to more sophisticated facilities in case of emergency. After bearing witness to my own sister’s complicated labour last week, the high infant and maternal mortality rate within the camps does not surprise me.

refugee Bhutanese
Many now-Australian Bhutanese of Nepalese origin languished in such UN-sponsored camps for decades.

The UNHCR provided financial support for illness costing up to 40,000 Nepalese rupees. Any cost exceeding this was not covered, with financial support only offered to those less than 60 years of age. Anyone older than this was not considered a worthwhile investment.

When I asked Adhikari what he and his family did for fun and to pass time in the camps he persistently informed me that they did nothing. I asked again, somewhat bewildered by the concept of nothing. How is this possible? Did you sing? Dance? He told me they had no instruments, no electricity to play CDs or DVDs. He told me that in ‘the early morning when they had to go out to fetch the water, they had to stand in a queue for hours. Come back, cook the food.’ This took up a substantial percentage of the day. When I asked him who were the ‘they’ that were doing this he told me it was mostly women. This goes without saying.

Children were schooled inside the camps, taught by the refugees themselves. They were payed a salary equivalent to AUD $10 per month. Due to the quality of the education system in Bhutan, most of the teachers were skilled in English and able to pass on their language skills to the refugees. If they were schooled in the surrounding Nepali villages by Nepali teachers, they would not have learnt such proficient English. In the camps, children were taught only one of their lessons in Nepali language. The rest of their classes (mathematics, science etc.) were taught in English similar to lessons in Nepalese private schools. Adhikari has exceptionally good English, testament in part to his early English education in Bhutan that continued in the camps. The education system in Bhutan is one of the best in South East Asia.

Adhikari went on to talk about the violence, in particular violence towards children and women that was prevalent in the camps. Alcoholism was a big problem. The consumption of home-made rice wine known by the Nepalese as ‘raksi’ was a major cause of the violence. The close proximity of residents living in the camps didn’t help the situation. Adhikari pointed out that compared to ‘refugee camps in other countries, say Africa [Nepal] was very, very peaceful’.

When asked his opinion on Nepal and its political situation and living conditions, Adhikari replied that due to its very complicated political situation combined with his past involvement with the Nepalese media, Nepal was a place he would love to return to for a visit, but not to stay and live.

Adhikari would also like to return to Bhutan to witness the extent of the political and social transformation that has taken place there in the last 20 years. Since the demise of an absolute monarchy, Bhutanese now have freedom of expression to form political parties, the right to debate and the right to vote. Buddhists and Hindus are both free to observe their religious traditions however Christianity is still banned, something Adhikari believes will change as Bhutan’s borders open up to the West.

When I asked him how difficult it would be for me to get a visa for Bhutan he informed me that it would not be difficult but it would cost me $200 per day. This is not cheap when compared to the cost of tourist visas for countries surrounding Bhutan, or any countries for that matter. If at any time during the process of applying for my Bhutananese visa I mentioned that I had met with him or any Bhutanese refugees it was likely to be refused. Why? Only in the last two or three years have foreign journalists been allowed to enter Bhutan and even now only in northern Bhutan, as journalists let loose in southern Bhutan, home to the Nepalese speaking population, are far too likely to uncover the truth of how the Lhotsampa were expelled around 20 years ago.

After almost 18 years in the camps campaigning to be returned to Bhutan, some refugees didn’t take kindly to suggestions of resettlement in third countries. However, since the Bhutanese government’s refusal to enter talks with the UN and the Nepalese government, many refugees volunteered to be resettled rather than remain in the camps. This sparked violence and protest from those who supported a return to Bhutan.

An escalation of violence in the camps in 2007 led to tightened security, however, persons protesting third country resettlement remain in the camps to this day. Out of around 108,000 refugees who were offered the choice of resettling, only around 80,000 agreed to be resettled.

In Adelaide, Adhikari is studying retail with the hopes of starting his own business. He wants to use his degree in economics from Tribhuvan University and experience working as an employee in retail stores to start a business. He will not lose his connection to the media however, as Adhikari is also a trained and highly qualified journalist. He works for Radio Adelaide on a Nepalese show called ‘The Voice of Shangri-La’ and has recently received a government grant to support the show. Adhikari also regularly writes for the website The Bhutanese Association of South Australia is dedicated to the publication of all matters Bhutanese in South Australia. Additionally he is involved with an international media collective named Bhutan Media Society formed by Bhutanese refugees based in Canada, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand and the United States. They have already established a website and an online radio program.   The Bhutanese Media Society also published a newspaper in Nepal before they scattered across the planet.

Bhutanese refugee
Indra Adhikari

Adhikari receives the Newstart allowance from the Australian government as well as access to the same Medicare facilities as an Australian citizen. The Newstart allowance is around $460 a fortnight. He isn’t required to process any online or paper forms or attend any meetings to upkeep this payment.

A Nepalese friend of mine recently mentioned the situation of Nepalese speaking Bhutanese refugees living in Australia. He believes that some Nepalese that have travelled on a student or other non-humanitarian visa feel jealousy towards Bhutanese refugees who were granted permanent residency on the first day of arrival in Australia. As an international student living in Australia he does not receive any government benefits at all. On the contrary, he has the added expense of substantial private college fees paid for from the maximum of 20 hours of work the government allows him and other international students to do. It is for this reason that so many are forced into more hours illegally by employers who can take advantage of this vulnerability, paying wages significantly lower than award rates. This however, is another story.

Lieutenant Governor of South Australia Mr Hieu Van Le AO has paired recently arrived Bhutanese in Adelaide with Italian migrants in a mentor system. The program allows Italians who migrated to Australia many years ago to impart their experiences and knowledge of immigration to help Bhutanese families effectively assimilate into Australian culture and lifestyle.

Members of the Bhutanese community have also worked with African refugees to produce short films for the wider refugee community in South Australia.

When I asked Adhikari about his opinion of Australian culture his initial answer was that it is very open and good that we have the right to choose what we want. We have the freedom not to depend on others and therefore can be very independent. We don’t depend heavily on our parents – very different to Bhutanese culture.

He also noticed that because of our tendency to live in smaller households of two to five people this ‘causes some stress’ which hinders proper socialisation. Adhikari feels Australian culture encourages a disconnection from natural things – it is ‘more mechanical’.

While Adhikari plans to stay in Australia for the next 25 to 30 years he states that after this time he would like to return to Nepal, Bhutan or Northern India, where he feels surrounded by his culture, language and people.

A final observation from the gentle and intelligent Adhikari is his description of family relationships in Australia as having ‘intimacy from the face’ but not ‘intimacy from the heart’, something that is ‘fundamental [to] social cohesion.’ I agree with his idea that ‘politeness does not equal inner heart feelings’.

The responsibility for the family is fundamental in Bhutanese culture – a sentiment which is arguably missing from Australian culture, whatever that may be.

Recorder off.

“Am I hungry?” asks hajuramma.

Not really, I think to myself, having eaten lunch only an hour or so earlier, but, I know better than to refuse the offer of food. I enjoy my boiled yams tremendously.

(Esther Nimmo is a writer based in Adelaide, Australia)

Add Comment