Bhutanese RefugeesNew Refugee Policy [ 2006-9-13 ]
By Uttam Maharjan
The fate of over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees has been in the air for a decade and a half. These Bhutanese refugees have been sheltering in seven camps in Jhapa and Morang districts in eastern Nepal since they first arrived in December 1990. The Government of Nepal and the Royal Government of Bhutan have held umpteen rounds of talks to solve the refugee crisis. The Nepal-Bhutan Joint Ministerial Committee was formed in 1993, and the first round of talks was held in that year. Despite so many rounds of talks, there is no sign of the refugee crisis getting solved. Who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs? It is largely Bhutan itself. Trilateral issueBhutan has been avoiding solving the refugee crisis by making one alibi or the other. Whenever international pressure seems to pile up on it, the Dragon Kingdom shows willingness to solve the refugee crisis by holding talks with Nepal. But the point to ponder is that although the Bhutanese refugee crisis is trilateral in nature, involving Nepal, Bhutan and India, Bhutan insists that it is a bilateral issue. That is why, although Nepal wants India to get involved in the refugee talks, the country has not been able to notch up success in this direction. Without Indian support and cooperation, the problem cannot be easily solved.Under international pressure, Bhutan agreed to take back its refugees in 2003 after verification of the refugees dwelling in the Khudunabari camp. Preparations were being made for the repatriation of the first batch of refugees and verification of refugees in other camps when an untoward incident took place on December 22 in that year. The refugees assaulted the Bhutanese officials of the Joint Verification Team. In fact, the incident occurred due to the provocative behaviour on the part of the Bhutanese officials. After the incident, the Bhutanese officials went back to Bhutan without so much as informing their Nepalese counterpart. Since then, the refugee issue has remained unsolved despite Nepal's repeated requests for solving the problem. During the intervening time since the incident, some developments have cropped up. At one time, some Bhutanese refugees, being despondent over their problem remaining unaddressed for a long time, marched on their own to their homeland, only to be repelled by the Indian authorities. There were protest programmes by the Bhutanese refugees in the capital city of Kathmandu to mount pressure on the government to take concrete measures to arrange for their repatriation to their homeland. The point of nationalising and assimilating the refugees in Nepal was also mooted. In yet another recent development, resettlement of the refugees in third countries has held the limelight. But the refugees are against this scheme, which has reportedly been hatched by the international community. What they want is nothing less than dignified repatriation to their homeland without, of course, any strings attached.A new era of people's democracy, popularly called loktantra, has been ushered in Nepal since the success of People's Movement II. The loktrantic government has taken the initiative of solving the refugee imbroglio by formulating a new refugee policy. Accordingly, a five-member team has been constituted. The team has been surveying the status of the refugees since August 31, 2006. The members of the team have been holding direct talks with the refugees to know their feelings. The team has flatly denied that the refugees will be resettled in third countries, clarifying that it is just a scuttlebutt. The team, following in the footsteps of the past governments of Nepal, believes that Indian support is essential to solving the refugee crisis. The team has, therefore, mulled over winning India over to the positive thinking that the refugee crisis is a trilateral issue and not just a bilateral one. The team has also accused Bhutan of escaping solving the refugee problem by making one excuse or the other.Given the long time the refugee crisis has remained unresolved, it is high time Nepal took drastic steps to solve the crisis. The best way to solve the crisis is dignified, unconditional repatriation of the refugees to their homeland, which can be engineered through the tripartite efforts of Nepal, Bhutan and India. Otherwise, there will be no option left for Nepal other than to internationalise the issue. Package of solutionsTill now, the refugees have been living off the assistance being given by various international organisations. It is reported that these organizations are gradually cutting back on their assistance, making the lives of the refugees more and more miserable. It is obvious that the refugees cannot be supported forever in Nepal. Nor is it possible for Nepal to assimilate all the refugees. What must be understood by Bhutan and the international community is that Nepal has sheltered the refugees on humanitarian grounds. The refugee crisis must be solved, otherwise the refugees will turn stateless people, a crime in the eyes of international law. Let's hope that the newly formed government team will come up with a package of solutions beneficial to both Nepal and Bhutan and not a Pandora's box that will further exacerbate the refugee crisis.