Monday, November 12, 2007

Last Hope for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal

Last Hope for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal
Syed Ali Mujtaba

'Last Hope: The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal and India,' is an 86-page report published by the Human Rights Watch {available at}. The report draws up a comprehensive plan for the resettlement of the exiled refugees and discusses the possible solutions to this protracted problem.

Bhutanese refugee crisis began in 1991 when Bhutan began to expel ethnic Nepalese from its country on the ground that they were migrant laborers and therefore not their natural citizens. As a result of this policy, about 1.6 lakh people of Nepali origin were expelled from Bhutan.

Locally known as Bhopalis, these refuges have been sheltering in the UNCHR run camps located in eastern Nepal with the hope that one day they would be repatriated to Bhutan.

The Human Rights Watch report describes the condition in the camps as pathetic and documents domestic violence and other social problems that have cropped up after the closure of some of the camps.

The report also mentions about the continuing discrimination of the ethnic Nepalese still living in Bhutan, and their fear that they might be stripped of their citizenship rights and could be expelled.

The report underlines the need for the repatriation but also discusses the option of resettlement into a third country. It mentions that there is ore than one option for the refugees and they should have the freedom to make informed decisions for or against the choices available to them.

Among the several options that have been laid down, the one that has assumed significance is the offer made by the United States of America in October 2006 to accept some 60,000 refugees living in camps in Nepal.

Many countries have expressed similar interest after the announcement made by the US to resettle the refuges in their country. This is the second option that’s made available.

The third option is Nepalese citizenship to those refugees who express a preference for local integration over resettlement or repatriation.

The fourth and final is that the refugees who wish to return to Bhutan would be able to return home.

The report outlines a three-pronged strategy: First, resettlement should be a real option for as many refugees as want it. This means that other countries should join in a coordinated effort to maximize the number of resettlement places. Bhutanese refugees living outside the camps in Nepal and India should also be eligible for resettlement. Nepal should cooperate on the resettlement option, in particular, by issuing exit permits without delay to refugees accepted for resettlement.

Second, the United States, India and other countries should redouble their efforts to persuade Bhutan to allow refugees who want to repatriate under conditions that are compatible with human rights law.

Since many refugees may now choose other options this should make it much easier for Bhutan to accept the offer of repatriation. The resettlement countries should press Bhutan for a genuine and comprehensive solution to this long drawn out problem.

However, since the announcement of the resettlement offer made by the US and other countries, there seems to be uneasy clams prevailing in the camps in eastern Nepal.

There are reports of intimidation by groups militantly opposed to resettlement plan. Such groups insist that the only acceptable solution to them is to return to Bhutan.

There was recently a bedlam at the Beldangi camp where police had to open fire to control an angry crowd that was trying to attack the secretary of the camp for his comments that third-country resettlement was the only choice left for the refugees. Two persons were killed in the police firing.

Though refugees fundamentally have the right to return to a country that expelled them but in this case, repatriation cannot be promoted as a durable solution because Bhutan refuses to uphold its duty to give the minimum human rights guarantee to those it expelled.

The UNCHR has been trying since last 16 years for repatriation option but so far Bhutan has not taken even a single refugee back. This has made the international body to open up other options for refugees so that they can leave their long years of exile and start a new life of their own.

The UNCHR has started a mass information campaign to sensitize the refugees about the serious nature of this problem and the wisdom of resettlement into a third country.

Not undermining the sincerity of the initiative taken by the UNCHR, the fact remains that the resettlement option has not many takers among the refugees as most prefer repatriation to resettlement.

Recently, some 15,000 refugees ventured a ‘Long March’ from Nepal to participate in the election in Bhutan, demanding repatriation. Since they could reach Bhutan only through the Indian corridor, they were stopped by the security forces when they tried to cross the Nepal-India border. In wake of heavy force used against them they had no other option but to return to their camps/

Given the ground realty of surging emotions for repatriation, the option of resettlement though may be the last hope for the Bhutanese refugees living in exile in Nepal and India but it may not be a durable solution to this long drawn out problem facing South Asia.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a working journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at

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