Last hope for Bhutanese refugees in Nepal

Syed Ali Mujtaba

‘Last Hope: The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal and India,’ (available at ) is an 86-page report published by the UNCHR. The report draws up a comprehensive plan for the resettlement of the exiled refugees and discusses the possible solutions to this protracted problem.

Support TwoCircles

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 having sheltering in the camps located in eastern Nepal with the hope that one day they would be repatriated to Bhutan.

The UNHCR report underlines the need for the repatriation of the refugees but also discusses other options of their resettlement into a third country. The 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 expelled.

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.

The report mentions that there is more than one solution and the refugees should have the freedom to make informed decisions for or against the options placed before them.

Among the several options that the UNCHR has 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.

After the announcement made by the US many countries expressed similar interest to resettle the refuges in their country and this is the second option for them to choose.

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.

Since the announcement of the US resettlement offer, there seems to be uneasy clams prevailing in the camps in eastern Nepal because of the nature of the US offer.

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.

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.

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.

Not undermining the sincerity of the initiative taken by the UNCHR, the fact remains that the resettlement option has not many takers among the refuges 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. They had to return to camps in wake of heavy force used against them.

Given the ground realty of surging emotions for repatriation, the option of resettlement though may be the last hope for the refugees living in exile in Nepal and India need 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 [email protected]