In theory, the outcome of the Nepal-Bhutan 15th ministerial meeting on Bhutani refugees this week was a major breakthrough. It marked the first time in 10 years that Thimpu agreed to repatriate refugees under three categories-bonafide Bhutanis, Bhutanis who have emigrated and Bhutanis who have committed crimes. The fourth, non-Bhutani category, will not be Bhutan's concern.
But will Bhutan commit to action what it has inked on paper? Based on the Bhutani "nod" this time, Ambassador-at-large, Bhek Bahadur Thapa believes that the first trucks carrying refugees will start moving from eastern Nepal to the Dragon Kingdom by mid-February 2004. "We asked them to include all three categories in each lot they take back, and they agreed," Thapa clarified.
That won't be an easy task. Consider the crux of the 15th ministerial agreement: "the people in the three categories who voluntarily apply to return to Bhutan will be repatriated as per the harmonised position on these categories." That position, decided at the 14th round of ministerial meetings in May this year, centres on the second category of those who have emigrated-a majority of the around 100,000 refugees.
Voluntary immigrants will have to reapply for citizenship and stay in Bhutan for a two-year probationary period. It won't come with guarantees because Bhutan's law denies citizenship to those who emigrated without prior approval of the government. "Remember, the repatriation has to be voluntary and the Druk goverment will interpret the legal provisions liberally as agreed between Bhutan and Nepal," Khandu Wangchuk, the Bhutani Foreign Minister told Nepali Times. Should the refugees choose to return home, Thimpu can deny them citizenship based on their laws. Given the provision in the 14th round of talks that refugees unwilling to leave can apply for Nepali citizenship, the Bhutani government has a loophole.
Bureaucratic hurdles are one thing, there are added fears about the kind of reception the refugees could receive once they reach home. "Do you think the refugees are fools to tread the minefield back home when they have an option to be safe in Nepal?" asks Rakesh Chhetri, a Bhutani human rights leader in exile. NGOs have reported that people from northern Bhutan have been resettled in the homesteads the refugees left.
There are no simple solutions, and diplomatese has too many ifs and buts. The fate of the refugees languishing in the camps still hangs in the balance.