KATHMANDU, 29 October 2009- Bhutanese refugees in Nepal have expressed dismay at a recent decision by the World Food Programme (WFP) to cut food rations sharply. “We are worried about the children,” said Yam Gurung, a 33-year-old refugee at the Beldangi-2 camp in Jhapa District, nearly 500km southeast of Kathmandu. “They suffer from an insufficient diet already and this can only make things worse.”
Gurung, who has three children aged 5-14, said each person used to receive a monthly food ration of around 5.6kg of rice, whereas now they receive half that.
“We are still shocked over the news. We hope the cuts won’t last any longer,” 24-year-old refugee Prakash Dhamala said, citing health concerns for the elderly.
Owing to a funding shortfall, WFP on 15 October was forced to cut food rations to more than 88,000 Bhutanese refugees living in camps in Nepal.
WFP has been providing rice, lentils and other food to the refugees, who fled neighbouring Bhutan when ethnic tensions flared nearly two decades ago. They have lived ever since in seven camps in eastern Nepal, where they rely on WFP aid as they are not allowed to work.
he food ration cut effectively means the daily food intake of each individual is less by 700 kilocalories and 14 grams of protein, according to WFP.
WFP said this was the first time in 18 years such action had been taken, and it was working to resolve the problem by appealing to donors for US$4 million to allow continued feeding until January 2010.
However, money is not the only problem: Rice, which is the main staple of the refugees’ diet, is generally transported via India’s Calcutta dry port, the main transportation hub for all imports and exports for landlocked Nepal, and large quantities of rice have been stuck there throughout much of Dasain (19-28 September), one of the biggest and longest Hindu festivals for both India and Nepal.
“By the first week of November, if everything goes well, we will deliver a full ration,” WFP country director Richard Ragan told to IRIN, expressing concern, however, over the upcoming strikes in the Terai region organized by ethnic-based political groups.
Some fear the WFP move is a ploy to force them to go to third countries. “Many refugees don’t want third country resettlement and worry the cuts are an attempt to pressure them into accepting it,” Jiten Subba, another refugee, said. WFP has flatly denied such a charge.
The refugees are divided over whether they should aim for resettlement in third countries or return to Bhutan. More than 80,000 refugees have expressed interest in resettlement, but a sizeable minority want to return to Bhutan.
“We try to tell the refugees that this has nothing to do with donor fatigue or third country resettlement. We are spending US$1 million every month for the refugees and it is often a challenge to do that,” Ragan explained, adding that WFP was also feeding nearly two million impoverished Nepalese.
Since March 2008, some 23,000 Bhutanese refugees have resettled in Europe and the USA, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
Meanwhile, many refugees hope this move by WFP will stimulate the debate over jobs: “We should be allowed to generate our own resources – especially those who do not wish to resettle in Western countries,” said refugee Jiten Thapa.
(Photo source: irinnews.org)