The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Friday, May 18, 2007

HRW stresses all options open for solution to refugee crisis

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said the Bhutanese refugees have right to return to their country, but other options for finding a solution to the crisis should be kept open.

A new HRW report made public in Kathmandu on Thursday states that the US offer to resettle 60,000 of them has given hope to many of the 106,000 refugees living in Nepal for more than 16 years, but has also heightened tensions in the camps.

The report further said that refugees who insist on repatriation as the only acceptable solution have been threatening and intimidating those who voice support for resettlement in the US and other countries.

"Refugees fundamentally have the right to return to a country that expelled them. But all refugees also have the right to make essential choices about their lives without threats and intimidation," said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at the HRW while releasing the report.

The 86-page report entitled "Last Hope: The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal and India" discusses the possible solutions to this protracted situation and the choices the refugee community now faces. The report documents life in the camps and domestic violence and other social problems that have come after protracted periods in closed camps. It also describes conditions of the refugees and also mentions about continuing discrimination against the ethnic Nepalis still living in Bhutan, who live in constant fear that they too could be stripped of their citizenship and expelled from the country.

"While repatriation would be the best option for most refugees, it can only be viable if Bhutan upholds its duty to guarantee the returnees' human rights," Frelick said further. "Until then, repatriation to Bhutan cannot be promoted as a durable solution for the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal," he said.

"We don't want to be dependent on others. Half our lives have been spent as refugees. We don't want that tag on our children's forehead. We want them to be proud citizens," the report quoted a refugee as saying.

Since the announcement of the US resettlement offer, tensions in the camps have been building, the report notes. Partly, this is because of rumors and misinformation about the nature of the offer itself. It is also due to intimidation by groups militantly opposed to resettlement who insist that the only acceptable solution is return to Bhutan.

"People feel insecure. If others hear you are looking for other options than repatriation, they will condemn you as not favoring repatriation, or diluting the prospects for repatriation. Others will accuse you of having no love for the country," another refugee said.

"Before any solutions can be achieved, Nepal must provide sufficient security in the camps to enable refugees to express their opinions and exchange information freely," said Frelick urging the Nepali government to provide adequate security to the refugees.

The report said the resettlement offer requires a three-pronged strategy. First, resettlement should be a real option for as many refugees as want it. This means that other countries should join in a coordinated effort to maximize the number of resettlement places. Bhutanese refugees living outside the camps in Nepal and India should also be eligible. Nepal should cooperate on the resettlement option, in particular, by issuing exit permits without delay to refugees accepted for resettlement.

Second, the rights groups said, Nepal should grant citizenship to those refugees who express a preference for local integration over resettlement or repatriation.

And finally, the US, India and other countries should redouble their efforts to persuade Bhutan to allow refugees who want to repatriate to do so under conditions that are compatible with human rights law.

"The possibility that many refugees may now choose other options should make it much easier for Bhutan to accept repatriation. Resettlement countries should press Bhutan for a genuinely comprehensive solution to this protracted refugee situation," Frelick said. ia May 17 07

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