Web posted at: 5/18/2007 8:27:49
Source ::: REUTERS
KATHMANDU • An offer by the United States to resettle tens of thousands of Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal has raised many hopes but the gesture has also sparked tension in the camps, Human Rights Watch said yesterday.
Refugees who insist on repatriation as the only acceptable solution have been threatening and intimidating those who voice support for resettlement in the United States, the New York-based group said in a report.
Tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis were expelled or fled from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan in 1991, and around 106,000 live in poverty and exile in crowded camps in eastern Nepal, roughly one-sixth of Bhutan’s population.
Last year, Washington offered to take 60,000 refugees from the camps in a move that has divided the exiled population.
“Refugees fundamentally have the right to return to a country that expelled them,” said Bill Frelick, the group’s refugee policy director. “But all refugees also have the right to make essential choices about their lives without threats and intimidation.”
The expulsions of the ethnic Nepalis followed protests in southern Bhutan in favour of democracy and human rights, and over discrimination against their Hindu religion, culture and language.
The government of mainly Buddhist Bhutan says most of those who left were illegal immigrants, and that they have been joined in the camps by opportunists from elsewhere falsely claiming to have come from Bhutan, while many others left the country voluntarily. It has yet to take back a single refugee, despite several rounds of meetings with the government of Nepal.
Human Rights Watch rejects those arguments, saying most of the camp population was expelled forcefully from Bhutan on the basis of ethnicity.
It added that there was continuing discrimination against ethnic Nepalis still living in Bhutan, who live in fear of being 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.
Bhutan’s government also says it fears being swamped by a growing population of illegal immigrants, mindful of the way ethnic Nepalis helped overthrow the Buddhist rulers of neighbouring Sikkim, annexed by India in 1975.
But Frelick said the US offer of resettlement offered a solution to the deadlock, so Bhutan could take back those who still wanted to return without needing to fear being swamped.
“It is in no one’s interest to have permanent refugee camps,” he told Reuters. “It is very much in Bhutan’s interest to embrace this as an opportunity, and to respond in a positive way.”
In a report, “Last Hope: The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal and India”, the group said Nepal should grant citizenship to refugees who prefer local integration to resettlement or repatriation.