After trying since 1993 to try to solve the Bhutanese refugee question, the 10th round of the Nepal-Bhutan Joint Ministerial Level Committee has finally made some progress. So far, the talks had hinged on the "verification mechanism for the four categories of refugees" and on "harmonising" the position of the two sides on each of the categories. For nearly eight years, they had failed even to agree on the jargon let alone on a common viewpoint on the definition of refugee.
On a wider geopolitical canvas, the refugee crisis has chilled relations between the two Himalayan monarchies. If Bhutan's uncompromising attitude has impeded progress, Nepal is to blame for agreeing to categorise the refugees. When he was home minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba agreed in July 1993 with his Bhutanese counterpart, Dago Tshering, on the categorisation. At that time, Nepal had no strategy to bring Bhutan to the negotiation table. Deuba agreed to four categories of refugees:
. forcefully evicted bonafide Bhutanese;
. voluntarily emigrated Bhutanese (a term Bhutan conveniently uses for those who signed migration forms under duress);
. non-Bhutanese; and
. Bhutanese who have committed criminal acts.
Nepal is now convinced that the over 100,000 refugees, 17,000 of whom have been born in the camps, will be able to go back home only if they are verified through the heads of their family. This is the right approach, since Bhutan keeps the census and land records of its citizens in the name of the head of the family. Refugees need to be identified and verified through heads of the family on the basis of citizenship cards and other documents such as land and house-hold tax paid receipts.
Bhutan is not willing to take back all the refugees, and insists that verification be done by interviewing individual refugees, which is a cumbersome process. If Bhutan's demand is accepted, then more than half of the refugees will not be able to go back home. This is because the names of 17,000 children born in the camps and a large number of refugee youth who got evicted in their childhood along with their parents prior to 1995 are not recorded in the census register of Bhutan.
As mediator, the UNHCR has suggested a formula to break this stalemate on verification: the unit of verification should be the nuclear family, including unmarried young people up to the age of 25, and elderly relatives and identification through family heads. Nepal agreed, but Bhutan rejected this compromise.
It is quite apparent that the progress made in Kathmandu last week was due to mounting international pressure which compelled Thimpu to search for a compromise. The Bhutanese refugee issue was getting internationalised through the refugees' own efforts, since they knew that only support from the world community would be able to make a difference. Nepal came to the scene at a much later stage. The first major breakthrough in internationalising the issue happened with the European Parliament (EP) resolution in March 1996 urging Nepal, Bhutan and India to speedily resolve the issue. The EP passed a second resolution in September 2000. The UN Human Rights Sub-Commission also issued two statements for early repatriation of Bhutanese refugees in 1998 and 1999.
Today, that Bhutan is under increased international pressure is evident from the resolution of the European Parliament in September, concern expressed by donors at the Round Table Meeting of the Bhutan aid consortium held in Thimphu from 7-9 November.
The much overdue American attention and concern about the Bhutanese refugee issue came through the proposal of the Assistant Secretaries of the US State Department for South Asia Karl Inderfurth and the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration Julia Taft who visited Nepal and Bhutan in December. Taft's proposal was to "identify the refugees and the head of a nuclear family, who would then identify the members of his/her family. Having agreed upon this, they could proceed on with an actual verification process and determine which of the four categories of the nuclear family, identified by the family head, are qualified to go home". This statement is close to Nepal 's proposal, although Bhutan has not reacted to Taft's statement publicly. The official Kuensel weekly said: "Mr Inderfurth told Kuensel that the US officials now understood better the refugee issue, the steps that were being taken to resolve the problem, and also appreciated Bhutan's concerns."
In its resolution the European Parliament denounced the deplorable situation of Bhutanese refugees and called on Bhutan, Nepal and all other parties involved, to speed up the process of repatriation of refugees to their country of origin. Recognising the goodwill of Nepal in accepting the refugees, the European resolution significantly censured India for pretending the refugee problems as a bilateral issue of concern only to Bhutan and Nepal. It urged New Delhi to take part in helping resolve the refugee issue. Bhutan rejected both the United Nations and European proposals.
During the donor's roundtable in Thimpu in November, European and Japanese diplomats are said to have expressed serious concern on the refugee issue and the discrimination against Nepali-speaking Lhotshampas. The Austrian representative at the meeting said that the issue of "economic refugees" in the context of Europe should not be confused with the "status of minorities" (like Lhotshampas) residing in the country for many years and respecting its leadership and the government. Bhutan should follow a policy of inclusion to gain long-term economic, social and political field. The Danish participant expressed concern over the discriminatory policies against Lhotshampas which included denial of citizenship identity cards, government employment and trade licences. The Dutch stressed freedom of expression, press and organisation for conflict resolution, and added that such things did not necessarily go against Bhutan's consensus culture. The Japanese representative at the roundtable said that his country believed in a fair and equitable solution of refugee problems. The meeting also praised Bhutan's development record. The remarks of the donor community are available on the UNDP website (http://www.undp.org.bt/RTM2000/TM_Report_main.htm )
In his letters, Bill Clinton's urged Bhutan to reach an agreement with Nepal to begin the process of verification for the repatriation of refugees during the Tenth Round in Kathmandu. If Bhutan fails to agree to the US proposal, the US has said it would urge multilateral donors to divert international aid from Bhutan to the refugee camps through UNHCR.
The major area of concern during the Tenth Round in Kathmandu 25-27 December was to agree on a "common perspective" on the method for verification. In a major breakthrough both parties not only agreed to begin the verification process of refugees on the basis of family units, but also agreed to establish a Joint Verification Team (JFT) by this week. So there is now a clear road map, and this is a big step forward. The main purpose of the verification process is said to be the preservation of the family integrity-families will not be broken up. The basics of the repatriation process on the four categories of refugees are a downstream process.
The Bhutanese delegation also promised that all valid documents possessed by refugees will be checked by the verification team. This is important since a large number of refugees possess documents issued to them by the Bhutanese government. The Tenth Round has set the right tone and cleared the first hurdle. Had Bhutan played its traditional delaying tactics this time also or if it creates problems in the verification process in future, it will surely invite international intervention, which will not be in its best interests. The challenge for the international community now is to monitor that the verification process is fair and equitable and to keep continuous pressure on Bhutan until all refugees can go back home.
(Rakesh Chhetri is a Bhutanese political analyst. email@example.com)