Nepali Times
Domestic Brief
Nepal-Bhutan talks inch ahead

Nepal and Bhutan have finally taken a step forward towards resolving the refugee problem involving about 100,000 people. Last week the two sides agreed to form a joint verification team (JVT) for "validating of family relationship as well as verification of the status of the people in the refugee camps". The JVT is to visit the camps this month to make "logistical, security and other arrangements". This basically means that work will begin to see if the people in the camps are actually Bhutanese evicted from their homeland-as Nepal has been maintaining-or economic migrants-as Bhutan claims.

"There may be delays over technical matters but this is a step forward," says Gyan Chandra Acharya, spokesman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The plan is to verify refugees as members of a family group for those up to the age of 25. Those above 25 will be dealt with individually. For verification purposes any papers proving Bhutanese citizenship will suffice.

The Ministerial Joint Committee (MJC) had only one agenda during the talks that lasted three days: to determine the mechanism for verifying the refugees. Nepal insisted on taking the family as the unit-because many refugees who came in as minors and also those born in the camps don't have the necessary papers-while Bhutan held on to screening all individuals. The two governments were silent on what to do with refugees not living in the camps.

From here the refugee problem moves towards other, perhaps more contentious, issues such as classifying them into four categories as agreed in October 1993-bona fide Bhutanese evicted forcefully, Bhutanese who immigrated, non-Bhutanese people and Bhutanese who have committed criminal acts.

Nepal and Bhutan did not meet for seven months after the last meeting but Foreign Ministry officials say they noticed a marked change in the Bhutanese attitude towards the refugee issue. That was partly a result of pressure from donor nations like the US and the EU. The European Parliament's resolution in September was the most scathing: it said Bhutan had delayed finding a resolution to the problem and ruled that the people in the camps were victims of arbitrary deprivation of nationality and forcible eviction. "Shocked by the sudden and arbitrary" resolution, which it said was "highly partisan, unsubstantiated and ill-timed," Bhutan wrote to the EC saying that the bilateral process was close to reaching a solution.

In the past Bhutan squarely put the blame for delays on the frequent changes on government in Nepal. In the same note Bhutan also said the origins of many people were in question as they cannot be separated from "the hundreds of thousands of wandering people in the region who have been displaced by demographic, environmental and economic circumstances in Nepal." The verification process could shed light on this issue.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)