The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

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

US home offer sparks tension in Bhutanese refugee camps

From correspondents in Kathmandu, Nepal, 05:02 PM IST
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A leading human rights organisation Thursday said Washington's offer to provide a home for the over 100,000 Bhutanese languishing in Nepal for nearly two decades has created a high level of tension in the refugee camps with militants threatening those welcoming the resettlement bid.

'Two Bhutanese acting as camp secretaries, who were explaining the US resettlement offer to the inmates, were sent a threatening note signed by a group calling itself the War and Peace Group,' said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch.

'The note said their heads would be cut off if they advocated resettling refugees on US soil.'

Winding up a visit to eastern Nepal, where over 100,000 Bhutanese have been living for 16 years in seven camps administered by the UN High Commission for Refugees, the HRW Thursday released a report in Kathmandu on its findings in the camps.

The report, 'Last Hope: The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal and India', says there is heightened tension in the camps with militant refugees who insist on returning to Bhutan as the only acceptable solution threatening and intimidating those supporting resettlement in the US.

It says there is also continuing discrimination against the ethnic Nepalis still living in Bhutan, who live in fear that they too could be stripped of their citizenship and expelled from the country.

'Refugees fundamentally have the right to return to a country that expelled them,' Frelick said. 'But all refugees also have the right to make essential choices about their lives without threats and intimidation.'

Bhutanese of Nepali origin, living mostly in southern Bhutan, began to face a crackdown from the 80s after the Druk government promulgated a new citizenship act and followed it up with a census in 1988, both combining to strip thousands of their citizenship.

Becoming 'foreigners' and persona non grata overnight, the families were intimidated into leaving the country and fled to India across the border from which a large number moved to Nepal, where they were given restricted refugee status by the Nepal government.

Since then, forced by the international community to begin a repatriation process, Bhutan began talks with Nepal but so far, has not taken a single refugee back, even after 15 rounds of bilateral talks.

It is felt that the process might have succeeded if India, Bhutan's biggest donor and trading partner, had added its persuasion.

But India continues to call the issue a bilateral matter between Nepal and Bhutan.

HRW officials said they had repeatedly tried to meet officials of India's external affairs ministry this week to discuss the issue but were not given an appointment.

The US offer has also created fear among the ethnic Bhutanese in Bhutan that they could face a new series of crackdown.

'The fears are legitimate given the new census and history,' Frelick said.

A 2005 census lists Bhutan's population as nearly 640,000, of which about 82,000 have been listed as 'foreigners'.

'That's nearly 13 percent of the population,' says Ratan Gazmere, president of the Association of Human Rights Activists Bhutan. 'We have little doubt that the Bhutan government will force this percentage of population to leave once the US resettlement process is started.

'While the US generosity allows refugees, who have spent 16 years in camps to start afresh, it also creates a dangerous precedent.

'It can signal to other despotic regimes that the international community is ready to clear the mess they make.

'The world should also double pressure on Bhutan to take its refugees back.'

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