Nepali Times
Do your roofs leak?

Ten years after the first Lotshampas began arriving at the Kakkarvitta border post, Nepal and Bhutan have begun the preliminaries for verifying refugees. Nepali officials in the Joint Verification Team (JVT) that visited the refugee camps last week say the actual screening could begin as early as late February. The Nepali JVT is led by Usha Nepal, joint secretary in the home ministry and the Bhutanese team by Sonam Tenzing, director at the home ministry.

Bhutanese officials visited the camps and spoke to their countrymen who've been in exile for a decade. We're told the Bhutanese asked some refugees where they came from, and when told seemed to know exactly what camp residents were talking about. They also asked the refugees why they left Bhutan, if camp rations were adequate and if their roofs leaked.

Foreign ministers of Nepal and Bhutan agreed on the refugee "verification mechanism" last month and the JVT was a result of the agreement. The two sides also agreed to frequent home secretary-level talks to smoothen the verification process and eventual repatriation. Even so, it is uncertain where refugee repatriation talks could head from here.

Refugees began arriving in Nepal in late 1989-early 1990 and have been living in seven UNHCR-run camps since. Mass eviction of ethnic Nepalis from Bhutan's southern regions began after it enacted a retroactive citizenship law in 1985 that qualifies only people having proof of land taxes paid in 1958 for citizenship. Nepal says it has been agreed upon that refugees under 25 years would be considered part of a family unit for verification. Bhutan, which had been insisting on screening each person individually, has not come out openly on the issue. Also we have not been told what documents would be admissible as proof of residence during verification.

An organisation of Bhutanese in exile says 95 percent of refugees have either citizenship papers or land deeds or both to prove residence in Bhutan. Nepal says because all refugees have some proof of residence in Bhutan, verification is the only hurdle keeping them from going home.

It may not be as simple though because screening can take months, involving piles of paperwork. There are also chances of repatriation especially if Bhutan insists on categorising refugees as was agreed upon in October 1993. By that agreement the plan was to categorise refugees into four groups: bona fide Bhutanese evicted forcefully, Bhutanese who have emigrated voluntarily, non-Bhutanese people and Bhutanese with criminal records.

The Nepal Red Cross Society numbers say that at last count there were 98,886 refugees from 15,025 families living in seven camps in Jhapa and Morang districts. Three camps in Beldangi alone house 49,000 refugees. Between 1992 and 1999 the UN and other donors have spent $92 million on the care and upkeep of the refugees.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)