Fourteen years after living in refugee camps in Nepal, 100,000 Bhutanis may finally be nearing the end of their ordeal.
But it is not a solution many of them, nor the country that hosted them, may like. Under pressure from donors, Nepal is being asked to assimilate the main portion of the refugees while the international community selects some, only a tiny proportion is allowed to return to Bhutan.
Private interviews with Kathmandu-based diplomats and other officials provide strong indication that the plan to relocate rather than repatriate the refugees is being discussed without the knowledge of the host country nor the refugees.
A slew of visits by senior donor officials, the latest by US Assistant Secretary of State Arthur Dewey last week, hint at a new initiative. Even though Dewey's trip to Jhapa was billed as a fact-finding mission, his terms of reference obtained by Nepali Times says he would be discussing with UNHCR officials in Kathmandu the re-registering of refugees.
The groundwork for the preparation of new profiles of all refugee families has reportedly begun in the camps in Jhapa. Bhutani leaders in exile are worried that the donor community is working to select desirable refugee categories and divide them up into those to be 'locally integrated', resettled in third countries, and sent back to Bhutan.
The American Centre in Kathmandu said Dewey did discuss with UNHCR officials about registering the refugees to find a solution. UNHCR officials in Kathmandu were not available for immediate comment.
Bhutani human rights leader Teknath Rijal, who has just returned from a visit to Geneva to meet UN and EU officials, says he has heard of the resettlement proposal, but rejected it outright. "The idea of resettling refugees elsewhere is not to our taste, we would like to go back to Bhutan because that is where we belong."
A Kathmandu-based diplomat confirmed that the proposal for resettlement and local integration were being discussed. He also confirmed that the re-registering and profiling exercise could be important to allow Western countries to select refugee categories they would like to take under their immigration quotas.
The idea of resettling refugees in Nepal and third countries is not new. In 2000, a senior official from the European Parliament had said during a visit to Kathmandu that resettlement of refugees in Nepal and India was planned. "I think it will not be easy to integrate 100,000 refugees in Bhutan," Thomas Mann, then vice president of the SAARC Delegation of the European Parliament had said. "We have got to convince the Bhutani government saying that some of the refugees will stay here (in Nepal) and some in India."
Four years down the line it looks like the plan has been only slightly amended to include a provision for Europe and America to also take a proportion of the refugees. Bhutani officials find this even more objectionable, because secret selection criteria may create in-fighting among refugees and wipe out the repatriation option. "It will derail our chances of going back to our homeland," said refugee leader Rijal. "We'd rather ask the international community and also India to pressure Bhutan to sincerely repatriate the refugees."
Nepali officials don't like the idea of resettlement and local integration either, but aren't in a position to have much say. "We are not talking about any other options now nor are we interested in them," Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Prakash Sharan Mahat told us. "Refugees identified as Bhutanis must be repatriated."
After 10 years of deadlock in more than one dozen rounds of bilateral ministerial meetings, Bhutan and Nepal finally agreed to verify the refugees on the basis of the four categories they had agreed in 1993 when Sher Bahadur Deuba was home minister. Of the 12,000 refugees verified in Khudunabari in 2001, only 2.4 percent were found to be bona fide Bhutanis forcibly evicted by Thimphu. More than 70 percent were categorised as 'voluntary migrants'. It is clear that Deuba's agreement to the categorisation ten years ago was a blunder that has cost Nepal and the Bhutanis dearly.
Thimpu's pre-conditions for taking back even bonafide refugees have made them think twice about going back. The United Nation's charter allows refugees the right to return, but chances are that many refugees would refuse to go back. Hence the idea of resettlement in third countries and local integration in Nepal.
Nepal and most refugees would be clear losers if this plan is activated. "The main winner will be the Bhutani regime, because it will show that you can evict one-sixth of your population and still get away with it," says one refugee leader. "It will also be a precedent for other states with Nepali-speaking people in the region to throw them out."