Recent months have witnessed a certain warmth in the long-troubled relationship between the governments of Bhutan and Nepal, and a growing recognition that the two India-locked Himalayan kingdoms have commercial and political interests in common. This might have been expected to bode well for the 100,000 'people in the refugee camps in Jhapa and Morang' who have been awaiting a just settlement of their plight with extraordinary dignity and patience for up to 12 years.
Ten long years ago, the two governments agreed to divide the refugees into four categories: (1) bonafide Bhutanese evicted forcibly, (2) Bhutanese who left as voluntary emigrants, (3) non-Bhutanese, and (4) Bhutanese criminals. It took a further eight years for the actual verification process to begin, and nearly nine months for it to be completed in just one camp: Khudunabari, the home of some 12,500 people. In the monsoon rains of 2001, I watched the buses come and go between Khudunabari and the Joint Verification Team's office in Damak. Several extended families were delivered each day, their children scrubbed and polished, for this first opportunity to prove that they were who they said they were. Levels of optimism were high.
The completion of the exercise was followed by many months of frustrating silence and inactivity and its outcome remained a mystery. The process did not restart until early 2003, after Bhutanese officials reassured international donors at a meeting in Geneva of their commitment to finding a solution to the refugee problem. The two verification teams spent many weeks in secret discussions in Thimphu before presenting their report to the fourteenth meeting of the Ministerial Joint Committee (MJC), recently concluded in Kathmandu.
The announcement that followed has come as a shock. It is widely believed that only 3 percent of the population of Khudunabari camp have been categorised as 'bonafide Bhutanese evicted forcibly', while some 75 percent have been categorised as 'voluntary emigrants'. Some 20 percent are said to have been categorised as non-Bhutanese, and 3 percent as Bhutanese criminals. According to the MJC's joint press release, the 'bonafide Bhutanese evicted forcibly', ie around 375 persons, will be permitted to return as full citizens, while those 'voluntary emigrants' who wish to return will be given the option of re-applying for Bhutanese citizenship. Non-Bhutanese will have to return to their own countries, and Bhutanese criminals will have to return to stand trial.
It is the 'voluntary emigrants' category that causes the greatest concern. It has long been known that a large number of people in the camps in Jhapa and Morang were in danger of falling into this category. It was always likely that a particularly high proportion would be found in Khudunabari, because this camp was the last to be established, well after the Bhutanese authorities had achieved a thorough bureaucratisation of the eviction process. The 'voluntary emigrants' include people who were coerced into signing emigration forms, people who signed written commitments to leave the country in order to secure the release of relatives imprisoned for political offences, people who simply fled from a generalised state of fear and insecurity, and so on. Drawing on research published by Kanak Mani Dixit and Amnesty International, I have discussed a number of such cases in my book, Unbecoming Citizens.
Many of us had hoped that the long delay in finalising the verification report was being caused by protracted negotiations over such cases. We hoped that the true reasons for flight were being clarified and that a number of people were being transferred to category 1 once it was proved that their 'emigration' had been far from 'voluntary'. It seems that we were wrong, and that the Nepali side in the negotiations has taken this category at face value, without delving into the multifarious reasons for flight. Perhaps this was because the Bhutanese authorities offered them a compromise: if the Nepalis agreed not to challenge any 'voluntary emigrant' categorisations, the Bhutanese would allow such individuals to apply for repatriation. One can only speculate.
Whatever the reasons, the people categorised as 'voluntary emigrants' will shortly be faced with a difficult choice. They may apply for Bhutanese citizenship (even though their categorisation implicitly accepts that they were citizens before they left Bhutan) but it seems that no decisions will be reached on these applications for a period of two years after their repatriation. The Bhutanese Foreign Minister has stated that citizenship will be granted in accordance with the citizenship laws of Bhutan. But Bhutanese citizenship laws stipulate periods of residence of 15 or 20 years for citizenship by naturalisation and require applicants to have a thorough knowledge of Dzongkha. How would these requirements apply in these circumstances?
Furthermore, if these 'voluntary emigrants' returned to Bhutan, where would they live? Most if not all of them owned houses and land in southern Bhutan, but many of their houses were demolished after their departure and many others were handed over to people from northern Bhutan in government resettlement schemes. Indeed, some of the districts from which people fled over a decade ago now contain the bases of Assamese and Bodo
insurgents. Is the Bhutanese government truly establishing 'transit camps' to house the returnees, as rumoured?
And how would these returnees earn a living? Would they return to their lives as self-sufficient tax-paying farmers, or would they be placed in labour camps? Would they be afforded any rights, to healthcare, education and so on? The evidence of continued discrimination against even those ethnic Nepalis who remain in Bhutan, as recently revealed by Human Rights Watch, is ominous.
Why would any sane individual choose to entrust his family's future to a government from which he once fled, when his family's basic needs are being met in an environment that may allow them no prospect of advancement or improvement, but which is essentially benign? Without any guarantees or safeguards, and in the absence of any third party involvement in the repatriation process, the Bhutanese offer begs many questions. We must earnestly hope that no pressure will be applied to those who are reluctant to respond positively to it. The fact that the government media in Nepal is presenting these talks as a qualified success raises the suspicion that HMG Nepal does not understand the processes that led to these people becoming refugees or, worse still, is uninterested in finding a solution informed by justice rather than expediency.
(Michael Hutt, PhD, is the author of Unbecoming Citizens and reader in Nepali and Himalayan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.)