Home International Over 13,000 Bhutan refugees to get homes abroad in 2008

Over 13,000 Bhutan refugees to get homes abroad in 2008

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS

Kathmandu : Over 13,000 Bhutanese refugees will find a new home in 2008 after having been forced to flee their villages and languishing in camps in Nepal for over 17 years, a top US official said.

Nancy J. Powell, the American Ambassador to Nepal, Wednesday said the US and four other western countries, willing to absorb the refugees, are hoping for the resettlement process to start rolling this year.

“It is our hope that in 2008 more than 13,000 refugees will be resettled from Nepal,” Powell said in a statement issued by the US Embassy in Kathmandu.

“By the end of 2009, we hope that an additional 20,000 or more refugees who have chosen resettlement will be starting new lives in the United States, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere.”

Over 100,000 Bhutanese have been living in seven camps in eastern Nepal after allegedly being driven out by the Druk government in the 1980s when Bhutan began an assimilation drive, overriding the culture, language and dress of ethnic communities, mostly of Nepali origin.

Despite holding over a dozen rounds of talks with Nepal on the repatriation of the refugees, Bhutan refused to take them back.

Besides the US, Australia, Canada, Denmark and Norway are the other countries willing to offer a new home to the refugees.

The process had a late start as Nepal initially sought to return the camp residents to their own country.

However, after 17 years, when donors began to show fatigue and aid started drying up, pressured by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the US, the Girija Prasad Koirala government finally relented.

Besides donors turning away, the refugees have also been caught in a battle between two groups that have triggered violence and fear in the camps.

The pro-repatriation group has been advocating doubling pressure on the Bhutan government to force it to take the refugees back and say if the refuges start accepting resettlement in a third country, the Druk kingdom will expel more ethnic citizens.

The group has also spawned an underground outfit that, like the Maoists of Nepal, is endeavouring to start an armed revolt in Bhutan and overthrow the king, just as the Maoists have done in Nepal.

At least two people died last year in clashes between the two groups.

In a tacit reference to the simmering tension, Powell said each refugee is entitled to make his or her own choice, in an atmosphere free from threats and intimidation.

“We thank the government of Nepal, through the efforts of the Nepal Police and armed and civilian police, for its work in improving the security and safety of the refugees in the camps,” she said.

“We know that many refugees in the camps remain concerned about their security and ask that the government maintain its vigilance in this regard and vigorously pursue the perpetrators of violent acts against the residents of the camps.”

The first batch of refugees is expected to head for the US this month and Powell urged the government to approve expedited exit permits for all refugees eligible for resettlement.

The Bhutanese exodus from Nepal will be watched keenly by Tibetan refugees in Nepal, who have been refused resettlement in the US by Nepal due to pressure by the Chinese government.

Last year, Washington wanted to offer a home to 5,000 Tibetans who fled Beijing’s control and escaped to Nepal.

However, China, intent on maintaining its iron grip on Tibet, that it annexed over five decades ago, persuaded Nepal to refuse the offer.

Nepali human rights activists say if Nepal allows Bhutan refugees to go abroad, it will eventually have to do the same with the Tibetans or be tainted for employing double standard.