Nepali Times
Bamboo curtain


Bhutan\'s celebration of its UN-sanctioned concept of Gross National Happiness in Canada next week will coincide with World Refugee Day on 20 June. It will have to answer for the misery of nearly 110,000 Bhutani refugees in Nepal.

Canada is one of the western countries pushing a new formula to resolve the refugee crisis with third country resettlement. Under the proposal, once Bhutan takes back a proportion of refugees, a majority will be 'locally integrated' in Nepal and the rest will be given citizenship by some western governments.

There is compassion fatigue after 15 years, and also concern that frustration among refugees in camps in eastern Nepal could easily be exploited by extremists. Hence the hurry to find a quick solution.

The refugee leaders, led by leading Bhutani dissident Tek Nath Rizal are not so keen on the plan saying it will divide his exiled community. But given the intransigence of Thimphu and its main backer, India, they really don\'t have any other option. The Nepal-Bhutan ministerial talks went through 15 rounds but with Kathmandu distracted by conflict, there have been no meetings since 2003.

Diplomats in Kathmandu say pressure is building on Thimphu to make the first gesture of repatriating at least the first group of refugees classified as Bhutanis in the aborted joint verification process and follow that up with more returnees.

"We are pinning our last hope on the international community," Rizal told us in Kathmandu this week expressing disappointment that western governments have allowed the Bhutani king to get away with one of the world\'s largest ethnic evictions in per capita terms.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been running the camps but has been criticised by human rights groups for not pushing repatriation hard enough. Lately, Bhutani leaders in exile say UNHCR is cutting back on aid to the camps.

"Relief support like food, shelter, health, education and other basic needs have been significantly cut back," says Bhutani human rights activist Ratan Gazmere. UNHCR\'s Executive Committee decided in 2003 to phase out activities in the camps in favour of promoting assimilation in Nepal and third country settlement for refugees.

"The so-called phase out plan to slash the size of UNHCR\'s refugee program in Nepal is unacceptable," the rights group Asian Legal Resource Centre said in a recent statement.

In an interview UNHCR\'s Nepal representative, Abraham Abraham denied there had been a cut (see interview) saying aid had actually increased to $6 million this year. But activists believe the UNHCR has emergency crises in Africa to attend to and plans to gradually hand over the Bhutani refugee assistance to other agencies. But that isn\'t easy.

The UN\'s own World Food Program (WFP) has been solely responsible for supplying food to the camps, but supplies are running low and unless new commitments are made there will be no food after September. "There are signals that donor support may come but there is no 100 percent guarantee," says WFP\'s Deputy Director JP Demargerie.
Morale is low among Bhutani exiles and they are worried that the western plan for resettlement and repatriation is already dividing the refugees. Local integration in Nepal is the last resort but Kathmandu is opposed to it saying it will set a precedence for countries to evict citizens and get away with it.

Both the refugees and UNHCR see mediation by third party, especially India, as the solution. After all, India is the first country the refugees entered when they were driven out of Bhutan. "India cannot indefinitely say it won\'t get involved," says Ratan Gazmere. There is said to be American pressure on New Delhi to mediate on repatriation and it is using the danger of militancy spreading to India\'s sensitive northeast as an argument.

Rizal has no doubt where the final responsibility lies: "The one country that is not bearing its share of the burden for having chased out its own citizens is Bhutan itself."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)