5-11 December 2014 #735

An (inter)national disgrace

SAARC fails to confront the Bhutan refugee issue
David Seddon
During the SAARC Summit, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala is reported to have raised with his Bhutan counterpart, Lyonchen Tshering Tobgay, the issue of refugees from Bhutan who have been living in eastern Nepal since the early 1990s.

Koirala is said to have stressed that it was the inalienable right of the refugees to return to their homes, and requested Bhutan to take special initiative to repatriate them. Tobgay reportedly commented that it was a complex humanitarian issue and that the ongoing process of resettlement should not be stopped.

The issue of Bhutanese displaced in the 1990s continues to rankle among the 100,000 or so forced to leave their country, some of whom remain in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. SAARC 2014 failed to address the issue, and neither Nepal nor Bhutan are willing to take responsibility for repatriation or re-settlement.

Bhutanese refugee resettled in the United States, Mohan Tamang, sent this impassioned message from California to the People’s SAARC which took place in parallel with the official Summit: ‘SAARC has failed to address people’s aspirations. We, the Bhutanese (refugees) are one example.We have suffered as refugees for decades. At least eight western countries have intervened to give humanitarian relief and the refugees are exploring how to add meaning to the rest of their lives. We are now campaigning in Washington DC and other donor countries to uphold the principles of human rights and democracy, especially in Bhutan. The voices of the people from platforms like the People’s SAARC must continue.’

After a long history of increasing ethnic discrimination against the Nepali-speaking inhabitants of Bhutan (many of whom had been settled there for numerous generations) on the part of the allegedly indigenous Dzongkha-speaking Ngalop (people of Tibetan origin who migrated to Bhutan in the ninth century) and the government, thousands of Lhotsampas living mainly in the southern regions of Bhutan were forced out between 1992-98 and taken refuge in Nepal, where they have since lived in camps under the auspices of the UNHCR for some two decades.

The Bhutan and the Nepalese governments debated the matter, but failed to achieve any resolution. Bhutan refused to re-admit those who wanted to go home, and Nepal refused to allow the refugees to re-settle and integrate into the local economy and society. The other members of SAARC expressed their concern, but were proved unwilling to help directly themselves.

In 2000 Bhutan and Nepal reached an agreement regarding the repatriation of certain classes of refugees living in camps in Nepal, subject to joint government verification. Bhutan claimed, however, that some of the camp inhabitants had never been Bhutanese citizens, and some not even residents of Bhutan. It also regarded some of the political groups among the Lhotshampa community like the Bhutan Peoples’ Party (BPP) and the Bhutan National Democratic Party (BNDP) as terrorist or ‘anti-national’ groups.

Among the other factors complicating repatriation, land and other property formerly held by Lhotshampa refugees had by now been resettled and taken over by the allegedly indigenous Ngalop settlers, many of whom were government officials and members of the military, with government encouragement. Nepal refused to offer integration into the local population, and refugees are restricted as regards movement, access to employment and access to the local justice system.

In March 2001, verification of refugees eligible for repatriation commenced but the progress stalled. In 2003, a Bhutanese verification team was attacked and injured in Jhapa, resulting in further delay. From 2008, the IOM and UNHCR, together with the United States, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands and New Zealand agreed to resettle the refugees over a period of five years. By 8 April 2014, the United States had taken some 75,000 and other countries nearly 14,000 between them.

As late as 2011, only some 200 refugees in Khudunabari refugee camp had been registered for repatriation to Bhutan, but none had actually gone back home. In April 2011, Bhutan and Nepal again opened talks on repatriation, by July 2011, they had held at least 15 rounds of bilateral talks, with no agreed outcome. Although Bhutan’s state media have echoed its government’s formal insistence on continued talks with Nepal, Bhutan has signaled its preference for third-country resettlement. In the face of this failure by the two countries most directly involved, and of the region as a whole, to repatriate to Bhutan or disperse and re-settle the refugees in Nepal, with full rights of citizenship in either case, the UNHCR remains committed to third-country resettlement.

SAARC 2014 has come and gone, and there has been no sign of movement on a bilateral basis, and despite the high sounding words of the final declaration of the SAARC there was no statement from the governments of the countries of the region, including Nepal and Bhutan, regarding their commitment to solving the long-standing, and disgraceful issue of the Bhutan refugees in Nepal.  


Read also:

Refugees-in-waiting, Gopal Gartaula

Huddled masses yearning to rejoin families, Gopal Gartaula

Gross National Shame, Anurag Acharya

No refuge when refugees leave

“We will struggle for full democracy”

Forget SAARC, Pradumna B Rana

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