The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Protracted refugee situation

By Dr Dhurba Rizal

No one chooses to be a refugee. Being a refugee means more than living in exile and depending on others. One of the most complex and difficult problems facing UNHCR today is that of protracted refugee situations. Over 64% of refugees in the world today are trapped in protracted refugee situations. Unwanted by their home country, grudgingly tolerated by their Nepalis hosts and of little interest to the international community, over 106000 Bhutanese refugees have been warehoused for more than a decade in the Jhapa and Morang district of Eastern Nepal.
Certain crimes lie beyond the scope of repentance. From torture to denationalization and ethnic cleansing, many of the rights violations experienced by refugees count amongst those grave injustices in the world for which it is impossible to truly make amends. More generally, the prolonged encampment of refugee populations has led to the violation of a number of rights contained in the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Faced with the restrictions, refugees become dependent on subsistence-level assistance, or less, and lead lives of poverty, frustration and unrealized potential.

They are frustrated and often dependent on others to find a solution to their plight. This is exactly the reason why they are now sitting on an indefinite hunger strike in front of UN House. This also indicates the level of frustration in the refugee community. Unresolved Bhutanese refugee situation represents a significant political phenomenon as well as a humanitarian problem. Protracted refugee situation often leads to a number of political and security concerns for host country, the country of origin, regional actors and the international community.

Through the simplifying lens of theory, it appears that if Bhutan created the refugees, then it should shoulder the challenge to take back its citizens. Not surprisingly, however, reality complicates the picture painted by theory. The negotiation between Bhutan and Nepal, the identification of the bonafide nationals, the terms and conditions for such identification and repatriation were all dictated by Bhutan. It has totally ignored the UNHCR and international community. It has been acquiesced by Nepal and tacitly supported by India. Bhutan government is steadfast in its resolve to continue the dead lock as it will give time to the regime to consolidate its hold on power by bringing artificially engineered demographic balance.

Time has come for us to ask: Why do these innocent refugees have to suffer? Is it a crime to become a refugee? Is this due to weak and partisan leadership among refugees, who have failed to aggregate and articulate their interests to deal with such complex human crisis? Is it due to disappointing response of India to the long-standing refugee affair? Is it due to declining interest of the USA, European Union and International Community? Are these people forgotten by International media like CNN and BBC, who claims to be the voice of the voiceless? Is a permanent and durable solution to the Bhutanese refugee crises evaporating? These questions can only raise and resonate the conflict of "Values and Interests" among the stakeholders of Bhutanese refugees crisis.

It is an unequal fight between the voiceless refugees and the government in power. The refugee policies, practices and solution are determined by the predominant power struggle for regional and global dominance. Political, socio-cultural and economic freedom, freedom from ideological constraints, freedom to define a new code of morality, which defines peace and security, democracy, human rights and sustainable development, can become truly universal values only if exercised alike without hidden interests and double standards. If we believe in these values, which we preach to others, then stakeholders of refugee crisis should intervene with utmost seriousness to support the cause of refugee and tame the regime. It is time to convey to Bhutan that the ultimate achievement of Gross National Happiness is intrinsically linked to the larger framework of inclusive democracy -- politically, economically and socio-culturally.

Bhutanese refugees continue to stagnate in over-crowded camps, which have neither the political nor the economic capacity to solve the problem. How can international community forget that Bhutan has created the largest per capita refugee population in the world? They are the one to tell the world that there are over a hundred thousand people, who have had their lives on hold for more than 15 years. How much longer would the world have them wait? If International community fails, they have to share in the blame for not having done enough, when there is the time for these voiceless refugees. It is only by redefining international solidarity in these terms, that we can hope to solve

the problem of refugees. Notwithstanding the growing significance of the problem, protracted Bhutanese refugee situations have not yet featured prominently on the international political agenda of major world power including the USA and India.

In the past, chronic and recurring refugee problems in Europe, Southeast Asia and Latin America have been resolved through comprehensive plans of action, involving not only humanitarian actors but also a range of political, security and development actors. Such an integrated approach is also needed to effectively resolve the protracted Bhutanese refugee crisis. The situation of the Bhutanese refugees has reached an impasse. The bilateral process has so far totally failed to respect the rights of the refugees or to achieve a durable solution for them. It is time for the international community and donor states of Nepal and Bhutan to convene an international conference, bringing all stakeholders together, including UN agencies and refugee representatives, to devise a comprehensive solution to this protracted refugee situation that meets international standards and gives due consideration to durable solutions. India, the US, European Union, Nepal and donor countries to Bhutan, should take active measures to ensure that refugee problem is resolved in full compliance with international human rights standards. If not resolved now, the refugee problem would fester and the role of the UNHCR and international community would be reduced to "simply administering human misery". The UNHCR has rightly said that "the consequence of having so many human beings in a static state include wasted lives, squandered resources and increased threats to security."

(The author is a visiting professor to the USA)

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