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10,000 Bhutanese refugees homeless after fire

Image: Bhutanese refugees in Nepal
Bhutanese refugees walk through their burnt-out homes in the Goldhap refugee camp in the Jhapa District of eastern Nepal on Sunday.Diptendu Dutta / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

About 10,000 Bhutanese refugees were without shelter after a fire razed their camp in southeastern Nepal, an official said.

Jaya Mukunda Khanal, chief government administrator in Jhapa district, said 1,300 makeshift homes made of bamboo were destroyed at the Goldhap refugee camp before the blaze was brought under control Saturday night.

Local humanitarian agencies were distributing aid to the refugees, and police were investigating the cause of the blaze, said Khanal.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said it was sending immediate emergency assistance.

"We are urgently mobilizing all resources, with a lot of help from the government, to get them shelter, food and comfort," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement Sunday.

Guterres said UNHCR will provide cash grants to refugees to help them reconstruct their homes. UNHCR estimated only 228 of the 1,512 traditional thatched huts in the camp survived the fire.

More than 100,000 ethnic Nepalis — a Hindu minority in Bhutan for centuries — have been living as refugees in Nepal since the early 1990s, when they were forced out by Bhutanese authorities who wanted to maintain the country's dominant Buddhist culture. The refugees live in seven U.N.-run camps in southeastern Nepal.

Bhutan refuses to allow the refugees to return, claiming most left voluntarily and renounced their citizenship.

Relations between Nepal and Bhutan have been strained by the issue. There have been several rounds of talks between top officials from both nations, but no significant progress has been made.

Jhapa is about 310 miles southeast of the capital, Katmandu.