The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Monday, July 3, 2006


“UNHCR can work for third country resettlement, not repatriation”
- Abraham Abraham

Nepal Representative of the UNHCR in Kathmandu Abraham Abraham (File Photo)
Representative of the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Nepal, Abraham Abraham, spoke to Indra Adhikari of Nepalnews on a range of issues related to the plight of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. Excerpts:
Bhutanese refugees have started their sit-in protest in front of the UN building from June 2 to draw attention of the international community and the Nepal government to resolve the long-standing refugee crisis. It seems the UN and the UNHCR are less concerned about it.
I wouldn't say that no attention is given. If no attention was given, why would I issue the press release, very particularly, on that occasion citing our concern to their issue. It really demonstrates our concern and understanding towards their plight. We are always working to lobby with the international community as well as the government of Nepal for finding solution to the crisis. I am very much keen to see solutions. We had lot of statements, lot of words. It is time for action and I would like concrete actions taking place; refugees being able to go back. And for those who are not ready to go back, we are ready to resettle them in third countries.
There are controversies and a section of refugees also oppose to this idea. What do you actually mean by third country settlement?
It basically means taking people to third countries, abroad, because there are no other solutions for them. That's what it meant. The first country is the country of their origin, Bhutan, and second the country of asylum is Nepal .. So, we mean taking them to another place if they are not able to return to Bhutan. Let's first negotiate the matter with the (Nepal) government. The (Nepal) government has not given us approval for it. For me, it's like saying that even if 105,000 refugees go back, there would still be somebody who's not gone back. So, for anybody who does not go back, we will definitely endeavor to find another solution. But you cannot agree that every solution is agreeable to every individual.
Which are these countries and what will the status of resettled people be?
They are all the major western countries, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada etc. where these people would be resettled. We are talking about these major resettlement countries from whom we are receiving firm expression of support and assurances and trying to resolve the refugee problem in a comprehensive manner. Because, everybody recognizes that all will not go back and all will not find the same solution. Those who cannot find the solution, we are ready to resettle them. The status in those countries will be exactly like the citizens of those countries. They will be received in those countries in very respectable manner. They will be taken to appropriate places where they can stay and they will be assisted in trying to seek a job. It is the responsibility of the governments to do this because they are the ones who are basically resettling the people. You cannot resettle the people just like dumping. They will resettle the people because they have taken the responsibility to find a new home for the refugees. So, we are trying to take them to the new home and more importantly to resume their normal dignified life and to end their suffering in the camps.
The bilateral process has stalled for long time and there are no prospects that it will restart. What do you think the reason is?
I cannot comment on what is a bilateral process. By definition, it is between two parties. Discussions and talks are going on between the two countries.. I am not observer to these talks and I don't know the details of these talks. So, I cannot say what are the precise reasons for delay in the talks. I don't see any good reason why the citizens of a country cannot return to their country. And again I don't see any reason why those who cannot return should not be allowed to be resettled in the third countries.
You met Foreign Minister K. P. Oli last week before he left for Geneva and EC. What did you discuss?
The discussion was precisely on how we could move forward to find out solutions to the refugee crisis. It concentrated on whether there are possibilities of resuming the bilateral talks, whether people will be able to go back and whether people will be allowed to resettle in the third countries. We must go forward to find solutions rather than continue to remain in these sad situations. It has already been more than 15 years. The Deputy Prime Minister Oli did not give any hint that the government would approve our proposal for third country resettlement. We just discussed the issue. On my part I expressed our readiness and availability for the resettlement of the Bhutanese refugees. It is the government to deal with the matter. The moment I get green light for resettlement, I need to have data. The baby who came at the age of one is now 17. I cannot submit the report for resettlement of a one year baby. I need to submit the report of 17 year old adult. If somebody was 50 years old and is now 65, I need to submit the report for resettlement of those who don't work any more, who are retired. So, it is important to capture the profile of all the people in the camps if we actually go for resettlement. For us it takes time of few months to take this information because we have full fledged database to handle with the matter. That is why we asked the government to allow us to carry out census in the camps.
We do this worldwide; it is not only for Nepal. I remember, I had resettled 29,000 persons in one year in one of the countries in Africa). That's because you get cooperation from all sides. But of course, if you don't get cooperation, you can't do anything. I think it is imperative, we must realize that we just cannot keep these people like prisoners in the camps. They are human beings, they have suffered, they were traumatized, evicted, they are the citizens having deprived of their right to return. We cannot leave them in camps. This is most inhuman. All parties should come to a point to find the solution for these people and to allow them to restart a new dignified life.
Young refugees mostly desire for third country settlement while older ones insist they want to go back because they had spent half of their life in Bhutan. So, is it that you are going to split the families?
No, we are not talking about any split in the families (gives emphasis). We are talking about the exercise of right of every individual. Every individual has the right to decide what he or she wants to do. Why should I split family? They should stay together, if they want. For me it is the exercise what we can do to each of them. To split a family is in fact against principle of the UNHCR. We try to ensure that family remains united. Using such words is also against our standard procedures. It is up to individual and the family to decide their way forward.
Will the international intervention, as demanded by the refugee, solve the problem?
Bilateral process is going on. So, how can we interfere into it? But if we are invited, or allowed to assist, we can help to solve the problem. The whole issue of third country settlement is linked up to this fact. Repatriation is something that is being handled bilaterally. But we can help for third country settlement. We can help for integrating (the Bhutanese refugees) in Nepal. UNHCR cannot help in repatriation because we are not parties to the bilateral process, and UNHCR has not been given presence in Bhutan. Without our presence in Bhutan we cannot engage in repatriation process because we do not know what will happen (to the refugees) when they get back. For repatriation to be successful, they should be able to get back, reintegrate with the society there and live a dignified life. As long as we don't have presence in Bhutan, we will not engage in repatriation.
There are reports that educational and health situation in camps is deteriorating. Are you ignoring these sectors?
I cannot say we are not giving concentration but it is due to lack of budget. We run on voluntary basis; more than 98 percent of our funding comes from voluntary contribution. We have to depend on these voluntary supports to be able to fund the refugee programmes. We have 20 percent global reduction in funding for 2006 programme. But we haven't reduced the assistance for the Bhutanese refugees. You can see the official documents. One has to understand all the facts to know whether we reduced funding to refugees. Ever since I came here total assistance for refugees is increasing every year. I think it is the quest on the part of the refugees for more and more needs. Components of assistance would have been reduced but total funding is increasing. We have good stock of medicines; you will see it at our store in Birtamod. We cannot keep the stock in the camps. Educational facilities are also good compared to those in the neighbouring villages.
What are your future strategies?
I am very much concerned with their future, their life. I can understand their frustration. A comprehensive solution would take into account voluntary repatriation for those who opt and can return to Bhutan and other alternatives such as third country resettlement for which offers are available from the resettlement recipient countries and such resettlement opportunities are also not open indefinitely. In this regard, the UN refugee agency stands ready to work closely with the two governments as well as the international community to find satisfactory solutions for the Bhutanese refugees instead of continuing to keep them in camps like prisoners with uncertainty about their future. 16 years have passed without any glimpse of repatriation and that is why UNHCR offers its readiness to find solution to the problem. I can do third country settlement and integration in Nepal.. But I cannot do more than to ask the government to expedite the bilateral process. In that case I am very much sorry about their plight. I am not able to offer them to take them back to Bhutan; I can only offer them for third country settlement. June 15 06


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