[Below we present a note sent by Tapan Bose (South Asia Forum for Human Rights, Kathmandu) on how the Nepali speaking South Bhutanese refugees are once again in the eye of a controversy. This time it is about the offer of the US government to resettle about 60,000 refugees in the United States. A section of the Nepalese and international media as well as some NGOs are projecting the US offer as an attempt to weaken the unity and the resolve of the Bhutanese refugees to 'return to their homeland'. It seems that all the well-wishers of the Bhutanese refugees are convinced that 'repatriation to Bhutan' is the best and the ideal solution. – Ed.]
Under the UN Convention on Refugees, there are three options for durable solution:
1.Return to the country of origin.
2.Rehabilitation in the host country.
3. Resettlement in a third country.
The UDHR also guarantees the right of every person to seek asylum. Though the UN convention on refugees does not indicate that any of the three is the most preferred, 'return' has somehow emerged as the most preferred solution.
It is nice to think 'return' as the ideal solution, which carries the image of happiness, which is usually associated with the image of welcome. It is definitely great to hope that when every one returns to their home the neighbours would come over and hug the returning families and all of them would settle down happily and life would restart from where it was 'stopped' at the moment of departure. But this as we all know never happens in reality. Experience shows that 'return' is one of the most difficult solutions. The reasons, which had forced the refuges to leave their home and hearth often, remain powerfully alive. The government, political groups and sections of the neighbours perpetrated a violence that the refugees cannot forget. The very first requirement of a 'returnee' is a protection against those forces. And this cannot happen unless the government of the state is committed to provide that security and the assistance to the returnees, which are essential for successful resettlement in their home country. The South Asian experiences of return, be it the case of Rohingyas to Myanmar from Bangladesh, Chakmas to Bangladesh from India and Sri Lankan Tamils from India to Sri Lanka have been extremely painful for all the returnee communities.
Under these circumstances the hope of 'return' for the Bhutanese refugees defies reality. Since the arrival of the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal in 1990-91, Nepal government has made every effort to secure their 'right to return'. During the 17 rounds of the so-called bilateral dialogue with the government of Bhutan, Nepal government gave into almost all the demands of Bhutan including to the obnoxious policy of 'categorisation and verification of the refugees by a joint team of Nepal and Bhutan'. However, all the efforts of Nepal government achieved nothing. The refugees are still stuck in the seven camps in eastern Nepal.
The first country of asylum for the Bhutanese refugees was and is India. After being uprooted from their homes and pushed inside Indian territory, the refugees found they were unwanted there. Indian authorities showed no sympathy. They did not recognize their status as citizens of Bhutan. On the Bhutanese refugee issue, Indian government has refused to seriously dialogue with Bhutan government and has prevented Nepal from taking the issue to the UN. Senior Indian bureaucrats and political leaders prefer following a policy of non- interference in the internal affairs of Bhutan, its trusted ally and dependable supplier of energy resources. Political leaders from the Congress, CPI (M) and AGP in West Bengal and Assam felt that the government should stay out of the question of the claims of Nepalese settlers in south Bhutan to Bhutanese citizenship rights, as it might boomerang on India. Already India was confronted with the unregulated movement of masses of Nepalese people from the eastern and western hill regions of Nepal. In other words, the Bhutanese refugees of Nepalese ethnicity were seen as Nepal's problem and therefore were pushed into Nepal.
During a discussion with Mr Shyam Saran, the then Indian Foreign Secretary, when I asked why India had pressurized Nepal to accept the blatantly unfair Bhutanese demand for 'categorisation and verification' of the refugees as a precondition for Bhutan's recognition of these people as its citizens, he explained, it was the only terms on which Bhutanese government was agreeable. It would appear that India was trying to get Bhutan to take back a few, thus saving Nepal's face, and then the rest could be resettled in India and Nepal. Apparently Indian government had assured Nepal that it would share a part of the burden of re-settling the remaining Bhutanese refugees. According to Mr. Saran, Bhutan's offer to take back a small number of refugees from Khudnabari camp after the completion of the first round 'categorisation and verification' was acceptable to the government of Nepal and the Bhutanese refugees. The return of people identified as category 1 and category 2, was expected to have paved the way for resolving the refugee crisis. Mr. Saran blamed the UNHCR and human rights NGO for destroying that opportunity by campaigning against Bhutan's offer, motivating the refugees to reject it.
It should be added, that the Bhutanese offer for persons in category 1 (citizens wrongly evicted) was that they could return but would receive no support for their rehabilitation nor would they be any restitution of their property. For people in category 2 (who left voluntarily) on return, they would have to live in designated camps. Only one member of the family would get employment. After eight years they could regain full citizenship, if they passed an examination to prove their loyalty to the nation and the king of Bhutan.
Government of Nepal is not willing to resettle the Bhutanese refugees in their country. Mr. K. P. Oli, the Deputy Prime Minister of Nepal had told me that there is no question of Nepal granting citizenship to the Bhutanese refugees. In my discussions with successive Nepalese Foreign and Home Ministers as well as leaders of Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal (UML), I was firmly told – the Government of Nepal was not ready to explore the 'third country resettlement option'. Evidently, 'return to Bhutan' was an article of faith of Nepalese foreign policy and no politician was willing to tinker with it. I also felt that behind this inflexible policy stance was an effort to cover the humiliation at the failure to get Bhutan to take back the people of Nepalese ethnicity. The need to save 'face' is epitomized in the ludicrous response of Nepal's Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to the US offer for resettlement of Bhutanese refugees - all the Bhutanese refugees should return to Bhutan even for a day before they go to another country for rehabilitation. Mr Oli had told me that 'return of the refugees' was a part of the larger vision of a 'democratic Bhutan'.
Now, Bhutanese politicians in exile, young revolutionaries and Maoist party cadres are campaigning against the offer for resettlement of 60,000 essentially because it has come from the Government of the USA. Some of the older Bhutanese NGOs which have been propagating 'return' as the only demand with the support of the 'revolutionary' groups are intimidation those refugees who would like to explore the possibilities of 'resettlement in a third country'. The claim of the so-called leaders of the refugee community that all the Bhutanese refugees want to return at any cost is a lie. The lie is proved by the fact that all the refugees in category I and II had refused to o back to Bhutan on the terms put forward by the Bhutanese government. The lie is further exposed by the fact thousands of refugees have sent appeals to the UNHCR requesting their resettlement in a third country. In all the training workshops that SAFHR organised on the rights of refugees in the camps during the past four years, overwhelming majority of the participants were keen to learn about the process of resettlement in a third country.
The Bhutanese refugees live in the seven camps without any security. Nepal government has withdrawn the police posts from the camps long ago. They have often faced violence from the local communities. A few camp inmates were killed in clashes with local Nepalese on issues of theft of firewood from local forests. Young refugee women have been lured into sex work. There are reported cases of rape of refugee women, which have remained unsolved...
It seems, once again the refugees would have to give up this opportunity to rebuild their lives in a new country to fulfill the dreams of the self centred 'elite' political leaders. Not one of the so-called Bhutanese politicians lives inside the camps. All of them have their homes outside the camps. Some also own property in Nepal. Their children study in expensive schools in Nepal and abroad. Obviously the leaders cannot afford their captive masses to desert them.
We have been failing the Bhutanese refugees all these years. Let us not let this opportunity pass them by. Let us not stand aside and let these so-called political parties in exile decide the collective fate of all the refugees. It is important for the government of Nepal, the UNHCR and the NGOs to intervene and help those who want to accept the offer of resettlement in the USA. Let some escape the camps where they have been prisoners for the last seventeen years.