The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Friday, May 25, 2007

U.N. refugee agency chief leaves for Bhutan to discuss refugees

The Associated PressPublished: May 24, 2007

KATMANDU, Nepal: The U.N.'s top refugee official headed to Bhutan on Thursday to urge the government to accept the return of thousands of refugees who fled to neighboring Nepal during a violent campaign to flush out ethnic Nepalese living there.

Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioners for Refugees, left Nepal after meeting groups of Bhutanese refugees who have lived in U.N.-run camps for 16 years, said the UNHCR office in the Nepalese capital, Katmandu.

"We hope to have meaningful and constructive dialogue with the government of Bhutan," Guterres told reporters Wednesday.

He did not elaborate on what he would offer the Bhutanese government to resolve the situation of the more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in southeast Nepal.

Guterres said most of the refugees indicated they wanted to return to their homeland.

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There have been reports recently claiming the refugees were divided about whether to continue pushing for a return to Bhutan or to be resettled in other countries — including a U.S. offer to accept 60,000 of them.

More than 100,000 ethnic Nepalis — a Hindu minority in Bhutan for centuries — have been living as refugees in Nepal since the early 1990s, when they were forced out by Bhutanese authorities who wanted to impose the country's dominant Buddhist culture across the country.

While Bhutan, the world's last Buddhist kingdom, is slowly moving toward democracy, it refuses to allow the refugees to return, claiming most left voluntarily and renounced their citizenship.

The refugees are living in seven U.N.-run camps about 500 kilometers (310 miles) east of Katmandu.

Relations between Nepal and Bhutan have been strained by the refugee issue.

There have been several rounds of talks between ministers and top officials of the two nations, but there has not been any significant progress.

Guterres met top government officials in Nepal during this trip, including Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and Foreign Minister Sahana Pradhan.

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