Nepali Times Asian Paints
Chance of a lifetime

More than 100,000 Bhutani refugees are finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel. After 17 years in camps in eastern Nepal, there is the prospect of resettlement in the United States, Canada, Denmark, and Australia.

But the refugees are now suddenly confronted with a political backlash from activists and refugee leaders who insist that resettlement would jeopardise their right of return to Bhutan. We find this incongruous.

The Lhotshampa have suffered enough. Thimphu's constant prevarication and India's baffling unwillingness to confront the culpable Bhutan regime raised fears the refugees would simply disappear into the South Asian night. The US resettlement offer lets Thimphu off the hook for now, but offers refugee families a chance to rebuild their lives.

There is a surprising silence from the refugees. A majority of refugees would want to take up the resettlement offer rather than wait any longer in Jhapa. But ultra-left radicalisation of the camps means refugees are afraid to speak out. Some Bhutani political leaders who stand to lose their flock to resettlement are also against the proposal.

There is genuine concern that the refugees' right of return might be compromised if they are settled overseas. Nepal fears resettlement may trigger another wave of Lhotshampa, and word is at least 80,000 are being \'prepared' for departure. Resettlement rather than return could trigger depopulation of Nepalis from the Indian northeast as well.

These fears have a sound basis, but the interest of the refugees must come first. This is a humanitarian issue and only then a political one. People cannot be sacrificed to principles against their best interests. Besides, the refugees' right of return to Bhutan will not be compromised when they are resettled. And a future Bhutani diaspora could even evolve as a strong force for human rights and democratisation back home, as we have seen with refugee resettlements elsewhere.

Refugee leaders must now speak for the humanitarian interest of the people they represent. The Core Group countries must ensure that Bhutan's depopulation exercise does not go unpunished in the long run. Nepal's Home Ministry must maintain law and order in the camps so individual refugees are free of intimidation.

Sital Nibas must come out with a white paper to detail the policy shift that has already been set in place by Foreign Minister Sahana Pradhan, which is that Nepal supports resettlement without giving up the goal of right of return.

Finally, it is India that must atone for its inaction on the return of Bhutan's refugees. New Delhi must send a strong message to Thimphu that further ethnic cleansing will not be tolerated. It must also firmly stamp out any copycat moves to evict Indians of Nepali origin from its own northeast.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)