No Way Home
In the early 20th century, hundreds of families left Nepal to settle in Bhutan, on the invitation of a Bhutanese government eager to fill an acute labour shortage. Known as Lhotshampa (southerners), these migrants and their descendants lived in relative isolation for eight generations, retaining a highly distinct Nepali culture that set them apart from the Bhutanese majority.
In the1980s, as part of its Gross National Happiness policy, the Bhutanese government pursued a “One Nation, One People” campaign designed to strengthen Bhutanese national identify. The Lhotshampa were declared illegal immigrants in their own country of birth and forced into exile. They returned to Nepal to find themselves refugees in their ancestral homeland: unable to work, dependent on NGOs, and deprived of any hope of living freely. Lhotshampa refugees were forced to settle in camps deep in the jungle of eastern Nepal to await an eventual return to Bhutan.
This return would never come. After 30 years of waiting, with both Nepal and Bhutan taking no action to settle the issue, the UN decided to close the refugee camps in 2007. Agreements were signed and eight countries opened their doors to the Lhotshampa: the United States, Canada, Norway, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
For six years now life in the refugee camps has been geared toward leaving. Every week, 200 to 400 refugees board International Organization of Migrations (IOM) buses, the start of a new life in a faraway land unlike any they have known.