The plight of the 100,000 Bhutanese living in camps in eastern Nepal for the past 10 years is one of the world's least-known refugee problems. But in terms of the proportion of the original population displaced, this is by far the most serious refugee crisis.
And yet, the Bhutanese have been eclipsed by Nepal's Maoist insurgency, a distracted and bungling Nepali officialdom, disinterest in New Delhi, and a Bhutanese establishment that has over the years cleverly deflected international criticism and bought time as it resettles people in the areas vacated by Lhotsampas.
But, as the consortium of Bhutan's donors gets ready to meet in Geneva in February, the issue has flared up again. Bhutan's New Delhi-based ambassador, Lyonpo Dago Tsering, was in Kathmandu this week bearing a conciliatory message. Nepali foreign ministry officials told the press they were impressed with the flexibility that the Bhutanese are showing.
But in the camps nothing has changed. In fact, after the verification process began in 2001 raising hopes, refugees have once more been left high and dry. The desperation has forced them to take part in an indefinite relay hunger strike at the Khudunabari camp in Jhapa this week.
The previous meeting of Bhutan's donors in 2000 had asked Thimpu to expedite the repatriation process of refugees, and that was when Bhutan agreed to set up a Joint Verification Team with Nepal. The team completed verification at Khudunabari more than a year ago, but no refugee has yet gone back.
"Dago Tsering's meetings in Kathmandu are nothing but a ploy to hoodwink western donors," says Rakesh Chhetri, a Kathmandu-based Bhutanese refugee academic. "Bhutan always talks positive at times like this." There have been 11 ministerial-level meetings between Nepal and Bhutan since home minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in 1993 agreed to divide refugees into four categories. Many refugees say that decision played right into the hands of the Bhutanese.
Khudunabari is one of seven refugee camps in eastern Nepal, and the hunger strikers there are demanding the immediate release of results of the verification process.
A delegation of Kathmandu-based envoys of the European Union that visited refugee camps last year, reported that the refugees, especially the youth, were getting restless. They also urged both Himalayan kingdoms to find an early solution to the problem.
But Chhetri is sceptical: "Nowhere in the world has the refugee issue been resolved through bilateral talks. From Kosovo to Afghanistan, the repatriation of the refugees has been made possible only through international intervention."