Bhutanese refugees in Nepal: A day in the life

A woman weaves in a Bhutanese refugee camp in eastern Nepal. Women and girls in the camps are vulnerable to unsafe job offers and wife-beating. Photo by Katie Orlinsky/Caritas

In the early 1990s the country of Bhutan, in the Himalayas, forcibly drove out over 100,000 ethnic Nepalis they claimed were not true citizens. These Bhutanese refugees ended up in eastern Nepal as migrants in limbo. Required to stay in refugee camps, they’ve lived for 20 years without electricity or good health care. The camp residents are also vulnerable to underhand job offers.

In March 2012, photographer Katie Orlinsky and Laura Sheahen of Caritas Internationalis visited the camps with Rupa Rai, who runs safe migration programmes for Caritas Nepal.

8:00 As we drive along the road to the camp, we see refugee men bicycling into the nearby town of Damak for work like bricklaying. At the camp entrance, we pass a dozen thatched-roof kiosks with Western Union signs. Many refugees have finally been admitted into countries like the USA, Australia, and Canada. Some are doing well and are sending money back to their relatives.

9:00 We see big warehouses filled with bags of rice and pulses from the World Food Program. We pass a marriage procession–complete with young men bearing a heavy car battery on a stick, the better to play wedding music in a place that has no electricity. This is a legitimate marriage, our camp guide explains, not a contract marriage. Since Bhutanese refugees are now being relocated to desirable countries, some Nepalis want to marry them in name only, to get the visa. At times, though, the contract marriage ruse is used to lure girls into more dangerous situations. Told that she’ll receive money if she goes to a place and is part of some paperwork formalities, the refugee girl may end up sold into, say, farm labour in Korea—or sold into a brothel in India.

10:00 We walk through the dusty lanes of the camp, where the bamboo-slat huts are about a metre apart. The walls are papered with newspapers inside to keep out the wind.

We run into Yasuda, whose drunken husband beat her so conspicuously the day before that he was arrested. Crying, she talks to Saraswati, a social worker who’s part of a Caritas programme at the camp. Jasuda asks Saraswati for someone strong to speak on her behalf when Jasuda goes to the police station about the case, since her husband is likely to be released. Rupa pulls out her cell phone to call a woman lawyer in Damak who deals with wife-beating cases. As refugees, not citizens of Nepal, the residents have to go through the camp’s legal channels. But the lawyer in Damak may be able to help once they do.

12:00 We meet teenage students who have attended Caritas’ awareness-raising sessions about dubious job offers. Girls in the camp’s schools have been taken by “friends of the family” to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, and beyond. They’re promised what to them are fabulous sums of money for conveniently vague-sounding jobs.

The students know now that if they’re offered a job somewhere else that seems too good to be true, it probably is. They know which documents they need and what questions to ask.

Some Bhutanese refugee girls have been rescued and have returned to the camp. “How should we treat them?” one serious-looking teenage boy asks as his classmates look on. Rupa encourages the students to be kind and understanding.

13:00 We talk to the students’ teachers and counselors, who have been trained in safe migration issues by Caritas and now who now train other adults. They discuss the safety issues children face. In addition to teenage students receiving suspect offers from others, people come into the camp sometimes, looking for small children. “Garbage sorters from India have been known to take children from Nepal to India to make them beggars, or for cheap labour making saris, or even for organs,” says Rupa. A camp teacher says that about six months ago, such a person came by the camp. According to the teacher, the man put two camp children, ages 4 and 6, into trash sacks on either side of his bicycle and started going away. One child’s head peeked out and he yelled to a neighbor; the children, she says, were saved.

14:30 A generator revs up and girls gather around tapstands that only work at certain times of the day. Though the Nepalese government can’t provide electricity at the camp—it doesn’t have enough for its own people—the generator will pump water on a schedule. The girls chat as they fill their jerry cans.

15:00 We talk to a different Saraswati, a woman with a troublesome 16-year-old niece. The niece left camp with her boyfriend and is now living in another city under a different name. Saraswati’s family was scheduled to relocate to a Western country, but when the niece disappeared, their resettlement process was stopped. Saraswati asks Rupa, “Do you know how we can find her?” Rupa says she’ll call a group she knows near the last known address of the girl.

16:00 We pass mothers cooking the evening meal with concave solar disks. The disks look like satellite dishes for TVs, but are actually meant to pinpoint sunlight so it heats the pot in the center of the disk. It takes about 15 minutes for a pot of rice, says one girl. “It’s hot,” says our camp guide–steam whistles out when he opens one pot’s top. “On rainy days, people use charcoal,” he explains.

“They found the girl,” reports Rupa at dinner. She’s talking about Saraswati’s niece, who’s been tracked down and who says she’s married. Saraswati hopes to meet her and figure out what’s going on. Depending on her situation, the resettlement process for Saraswati’s family could be permanently suspended. They’d have to do the paperwork and interviews from the beginning. It means another two-year wait for Saraswati’s family before they can leave the camp–and start a new life.


Please give to Caritas generously. Your support makes our work possible.


Caritas brought together a collection of prayers and reflections for you to use.


Volunteers make a crucial contribution. Find out how you can be one.