The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nepal finally waves away refugees

By Alexander Casella

After dragging on for close to 18 years - often in almost farcical fashion - at an estimated cost of some US$350 million, resolution of the Bhutan refugee crisis is at hand. This month, the first batch of 25,000 refugees left camps in seven United Nations-supervised camps in eastern Nepal, and the vast majority of the 86,000 remaining have signed up for resettlement in the West; most of them are heading for the United States.

The origin of the crisis, which has exposed bureaucratic bungling and nationalist fervor at their worst, lies not so much in Bhutan as in Sikkim, which provided a foreshadow of what could have been the fate of Bhutan.

With porous borders and a weak state apparatus, the diminutive kingdom of Sikkim had become a destination of choice for a creeping ongoing uncontrolled immigration from nearby Nepal. As

the Nepalese slowly increased in number they also brought with them the political factionalism and dissent that plagued their country of origin. By 1975, the local Sikimese Bhutia had become a minority in their own country and the level of political unrest had become such that New Delhi had to step in and annex Sikkim.

The lesson was not lost on the Bhutanese, who were also exposed to similar immigration pressure from Nepal and where government circles had come to the conclusion - a view shared by many Western specialist of the region - that Bhutan was destined for extinction if decisive measures were not taken to bring to a stop what had become a process of creeping demographic encroachment.

Thus, by the early 1980s, the government of Bhutan started to tighten rules regarding immigration. Likewise, residency requirements regarding the acquisition of citizenship, though still relatively liberal in comparison to those of many Western countries, were made more stringent. Admittance to government service was also restricted to nationals and the use of the national language, Dzongkha, was made mandatory for official business.

These measures were increasingly badly received by the immigrant community and with unrest spreading in southern Bhutan, where most of the newcomers had congregated, the authorities decided to resort to a more radical solution - the wholesale expulsion of immigrants. Thus, between the end of 1990 and 1992, some 100,000 illegal immigrants were expelled from Bhutan.

While there was considerable debate as regards the precise composition of the group, the fact that some 70,000 moved to Nepal, which had no common border with Bhutan as it is separated by a strip of land that is part of India, made a compelling case for them being of Nepali origin. As for the remaining 30,000, they moved to India, where they joined the some four million strong Nepalese community.

While the expulsions were at times brutal, for the half million indigenous inhabitants of Bhutan what was at stake was the cultural survival of the last Tantric Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas.

Had events been permitted to run their course, the 70,000 who arrived in Nepal would have faded away and the impact of their arrival in a country of some 28.5 million inhabitants which, for all practical purposes was their own, would have passed unnoticed. That events took another turn was due to an odd set of circumstances, namely the failure of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency, to properly address the Kurdish crisis in northern Iraq in 1991.

In the wake of the first Gulf War in 1991, the US government encouraged the Kurds in northern Iraq to revolt against Saddam Hussein. When, however, Saddam turned against the Kurds, Washington did not come to their help and the result was a massive population displacement which saw hundreds of thousands of Kurds seek refuge in areas in northern Iraq not under Saddam's control, while others sought refuge in Iran and Turkey.

The exodus caught the then-high commissioner for refugees, Madame Sadako Ogata, completely unprepared and exposed her to a wave of criticism both from Western governments and the non-governmental organization community.

To mitigate censure for her failure, Ogata created, within the UNHCR bureaucracy, a so-called Emergency Response Unit allegedly responsible for ensuring that the refugee agency be capable of responding at short notice to a sudden refugee crisis anywhere in the world.

However, with no further crises in sight but an unemployed emergency unit at hand, the UNHCR bureaucracy became a solution in search of a problem. That problem suddenly emerged in 1992, when the government of Nepal asked the UNHCR to take charge of the group expelled from Bhutan on the grounds that these were "refugees", that is, foreign nationals who had fled persecution in their country of origin.

Normally, the UNHCR, before intervening, would have undertaken a survey of the caseload to determine exactly their nationality and reasons for departure. Had this been undertaken, the inescapable conclusion would have been that the overwhelming majority were actually Nepalese and hence, by the fact that they were in their own country, did not qualifying for refugee status.

But Ogata did not run a tight shop and spurred by the urge to be perceived as active, the UNHCR opened seven camps without undertaking even a semblance of a survey of the arrivals. Over subsequent years, as the UNHCR kept on pouring money into the camps, Bhutan and Nepal embarked on a series of protracted and fruitless discussions as to how to deal with the group.

While Bhutan acknowledged that among the camp population there might be a few bona-fide Bhutanese citizens whom they could accept back, they where wary of exposing themselves to a massive return. Conversely, the Nepali authorities, already embroiled in a major internal crisis, were insisting on the wholesale return of the group. By then, the camps had become hotbeds of opposition to the Bhutanese government and were in part controlled by various Marxist groups, including some of Maoist extraction.

In 1996, a senior UNHCR official on a visit to Bhutan acknowledged that the UNHCR should never have opened the camps in the first place, with the extenuating explanation that the decision to do so derived from plain stupidity rather than evil intent. But Japanese Ogata was not one to acknowledge her mistakes, and though she visited Bhutan in November 2000, she remained impervious to any recommendations to close the camps.

By the time Ogata left the UNHCR in December 2000, the situation in the camps had undergone a thorough Palestinization and with Nepal dead-set against local integration schemes, no solution appeared in sight other than the prospect of an unending financing for the camps.

Within the UNHCR, it was not a situation with which the hardcore bureaucracy found fault. With the agency's existence justified by the existence of refugees, the incentive was in opening camps rather than closing them and the more refugees to care for so much the better. And when the beneficiaries were not exactly "refugees", the temptation to stretch the rules and thus increase the number of the organization's constituents proved irresistible.

It was only in 2004, with the nomination of a new director for Asia, that the UNHCR started to reconsider the issue. With neither repatriation nor local settlement in the cards, resettlement appeared as the only viable option. Thus, by 2006, following a Canadian initiative, the so-called "Core Group" of countries which had monitored the problem and that included Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and the US, decided that they would all offer resettlement slots to the camp population. With the US ready to accept up to 70 000 and a resettlement rhythm of some 20,000 a year, it was estimated that in four to five years the problem could be solved and the camps closed.

The announcement of the resettlement scheme provoked a major outcry throughout the camps. Fearful of losing their captive constituencies, the various political factions active in the camps, such as the Bhutan Communist Party, the Bhutan Peoples' Party and the Democratic Socialists, supported by exiled movements, launched a massive campaign against resettlement. Riots erupted and in May 2007 three camp inhabitants who had volunteered for resettlement were killed. As for the Nepal government, for whom the camps represented a source of income, it was only after severe pressure from the "Core Group" that it agreed to deliver exit permits to those who had been accepted for resettlement.

While the resettlement selection process proved laborious for most of the camp inhabitants, the opportunity to move to a developed country finally proved irresistible. Thus, this December, the UNHCR announced that 25,000 refugees had signed up for resettlement in the West. The Nepal office of the UNHCR said the US had so far accepted the largest number, 22,060, followed by Australia (1,006), Canada (892), Norway (316), Denmark (305), New Zealand (299) and the Netherlands (122).

With the trend towards resettlement now irreversible, it is only a matter of time before the Bhutan "refugee" issue is brought to its final conclusion.

Source: Asia Times

From blog Himalyan Watch


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