Nepal and Bhutan are inching towards partially repatriating some of the100,000 Bhutanese refugees who have been living in camps in eastern Nepal for the past 12 years.
Officials from the two countries have been doing the diplomatic shuttle. Foreign Minister Narendra Bikram Shah flew to Bhutan three weeks ago. Then his counterpart Lyonpo Jigme Y Thinley paid a return visit to Kathmandu this week for the 12th Joint Ministerial Meeting (in picture). Both ministers sounded upbeat at a press conference on Thursday evening, announcing the next series of ministerial talks in Thimpu on 24 March. The Joint Verification Teams will also meet in Thimpu on 24 February. "We are under pressure from the Nepali public, from the media and donors to resolve this issue quickly and fairly," Shah told reporters.
But they sidestepped questions about a proposal by Bhutan, which sources told us will involve the voluntary repatriation of refugees to Bhutan. Under the proposal, which seems to be a trial balloon, the refugees would be asked to choose whether they want to return to Bhutan or stay in Nepal. Asked about this proposal, Thinley said, "No comment." Outside, the two ministers were mobbed by Bhutanese refugees amassed at the gates of Shital Niwas and blocking the road. The police had to forcibly move them, while the ministers took the back door out.
Under growing international pressure, Bhutan now seems reconciled to taking some of the refugees back. It may be hoping that if given the choice, many will not opt to return to an uncertain future in Bhutan where their homesteads may have been resettled by other Bhutanese. Bhutan\'s donors are reportedly considering
rehabilitation support for the refugees who agree to return to Bhutan.
Asked what the refugees thought of the proposal, Bhutanese rights activist, Ratan Gazmere told us, "It is totally unacceptable. As citizens of Bhutan, we have the right to return to our country. They can\'t just take some of us back
and leave the others behind." Refugee leaders say the Bhutanese government is trying to divide the exiled community.
Some 12,000 refugees living in Khudunabari went through the verification process in 2001, and more than 90 percent were said to have documents to prove they were Bhutanese. But the joint team has not made public the result of the exercise. This week, refugees from six other camps in Jhapa have joined 4,000 Bhutanese at
the Khudunabari Camp who have been on a relay hunger strike for over a month. They demand the immediate publication of verification results, repatriation of verified refugees and starting verification in the other camps.
Most analysts agree that India has a critical role to play in mediating the refugee issue, since Bhutan and Nepal do not have a contiguous border and the refugees all passed through India to enter Nepal. New Delhi also controls Bhutan\'s foreign policy, but it maintains that the refugee issue is a bilateral problem that Nepal and Bhutan have to resolve.