US-bound Bhutanese refugees left in limbo in Nepal

Jhapa (Nepal) (AFP) - Kalimaya Magar had given away most of her belongings as she prepared to leave the refugee camp in Nepal for a new life in the United States.

But after more than two decades of waiting, her departure -- originally scheduled for this week -- was cancelled in an instant after US President Donald Trump issued a temporary ban on refugee arrivals.

The US has been the largest recipient of Bhutanese of ethnic Nepali origin who say they are fleeing persecution in the tiny Himalayan kingdom.

More than 90,000 have been welcomed into the US since 2007, when talks to secure their return to Bhutan collapsed.

Over 10,000 still live in camps across Nepal but Trump's controversial order on refugee resettlement has plunged many into limbo.

"My hope for freedom from this life as a refugee is only a dream now," Magar told AFP at Beldangi camp last week. The 41-year-old was due to be resettled in Vermont with her husband and children.

A notice circulated to refugees at the camp last week said "there would be no departure-related processes from February 3 until further notice", and referred to the order signed by the US president.

While the travel ban on refugees has since been suspended by a US court, those at the camp were unsure what that meant for them.

"We've heard rumours, but have no official information about if or when we might be able to go," Magar said Monday.

A State Department ?spokesperson said they have been informed about the court ruling, but did not specify its impact on the Bhutanese resettlement programme.

?"We are working closely with our legal teams as well as our interagency and overseas partners to comply with the order," the spokesperson said.

- Cold comfort -

More than 100,000 ethnic Nepalis fled Bhutan in the early 1990s after the Buddhist kingdom made national dress compulsory and banned the use of the Nepali language.

The majority were resettled in the US while thousands more found new homes in Europe, Australia and Canada, among other destinations.

Trump's order on January 27 unleashed chaos and confusion around the world after it barred refugees from entering the US for 120 days and indefinitely blocked those from Syria.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR, which has publicly criticised the ban, estimates more than 20,000 people worldwide were slated for resettlement in the US during that window.

A US federal judge on Friday suspended the presidential order pending a wider legal review. An appeals court on Sunday refused a government request immediately to reinstate the ban.

But it's cold comfort for Aitemaya Tamang, who was told a day before she was to depart to join her family in the US that her resettlement had been suspended.

Tamang, who was only a toddler when she fled Bhutan, had packed her bags and attached labels marked with her destination: North Carolina.

"I am shocked and worried," the 26-year-old told AFP from her hut in the camp, her bags on the floor.

"I wanted to go because I want to work and earn for my family and send my son to a good school. Now I don't know what will happen."