|COMING AND GOING: These Bhutani refugee camps in Jhapa may remain crowded despite third country resettlement.|
Some Bhutani refugees in the UN-run camps in Jhapa and Morang are readying to leave for new homes in the US and Canada. But refugee leaders are worried about a possible second round of arrivals from Bhutan.
Over 80,000 Bhutanis were not allowed to vote in the recent mock elections held ahead of the country's first parliamentary elections next year. Most were Nepali-speaking Lhotsampas termed \'foreign nationals\' in last year\'s census.
Bhuani refugee and democracy movement leader Tek Nath Rijal who sees a humanitarian crisis in the making. Rijal recently spoke to Bhutani national assembly members and village block heads, who told him that the mock voting was another reminder to Nepali-speaking Lhotsampas that they are not \'real\' Bhutanis.
"They said that during the registration for mock voting, Nepali-speaking Bhutanis were told in a humiliating manner that that they too now had a chance to settle in countries like the US, just like the Bhutani refugees in Nepal," Rijal said. "They also told me they were threatened repeatedly that it was time for them to decide about resettling elsewhere."
Another refugee leader told us that "Nepali speakers in southern Bhutan are being accused of having relatives in the refugee camps in Nepal and indulging in politics," says Ratan Gazmere, chief coordinator of Association of Human Rights
Activists, Bhutan. They also report being constantly told that their
names would not be included in the voters' list and the census.
Rijal says the village heads whose constituencies were not included in voters' registration counted the number of Nepali speakers excluded from the mock voting. "They found that the number is close to 80,000."
Bhutani officials deny this. Bhutan's chief election commissioner Kunjang Wangdi says refugee leaders in Nepal are spreading propaganda. "It is irresponsible on their part to do this. The royal government's policy is of non-discrimination."
He did however indicate that some southern Bhutanis of Nepali origin were not allowed to vote in the mock polls last month. "If they did not have valid documents, only then it must have been so. As long as you are a citizen, there is no problem." Wangdi could not give us an exact number of Bhutanis who are not on the voters' list. "We are still in the process of voter registration; it is difficult for me to say anything until that is completed."
Refugee leaders believe the 'non-Bhutani' figure stands at around 82,000, 13 percent of Bhutan's present population. This figure is the difference between those counted as Bhutani citizens and the total population (635,000) as enumerated by Bhutan's Population and Census Commission in 2005. Refuge sources say that last year's census and the non-registration of voters this year, are indications that over 80,000 Nepali speakers in southern Bhutan are in the process of being made stateless.
One leader said, "All might not be made refugees at one go, like in the late '80s but it will happen in several phases, and Nepal will again have to bear the consequences." The majority of Bhutani refugees living in the camps in east Nepal say they were forcibly evicted from Bhutan in the early 1990s. Thimphu has consistently termed the now over 105,000 Lhotsampa refugees illegal immigrants.
The joint refugee verification process carried out by Nepal and Bhutan has been through 16 rounds of ministerial level meetings and is regularly disrupted by disputes.
Navin Singh Khadka is journalist with BBC Nepal Service