The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Thursday, November 2, 2006

Bhutanese Refugee Crisis And US Resettlement Plan

Bhutanese Refugee Crisis And US Resettlement Plan [ 2006-11-2 ]
By Uttam Maharjan

AFTER 15 rounds of talks have proved unable to produce anything tangible, the Bhutanese refugee crisis has taken a new turn. There has been a mixed reaction from the Nepalese government officials, Bhutanese refugees and refugee leaders to the US announcement that it would resettle upto 60,000 refugees in the United States. It is reported that the refugee leaders are against the US resettlement plan, whereas the refugees are divided, some willing to settle in the USA and the others preferring repatriation to their own home country. The difference of opinion among the refugees is so sharp that there is disagreement among even the members of the same family.

With this development unfolding, Nepal is to hold the 16th round of talks with Bhutan in November 2006. The position of Nepal on the US resettlement plan is expected to be made clear during the parley.

There are about 125,000 Bhutanese refugees languishing in seven camps in Jhapa and Morang. They have been there for the last 16 years, awaiting their dignified repatriation to Bhutan. The Bhutanese refugees are the victims of the Bhutanese government's ethnic cleansing policy. They are Nepalese-speaking people living in southern Bhutan, where they are locally called Lhotsampas.

In the 1990s, the Lhotsampas staged a movement demanding restoration of democracy. In response, the Bhutanese government oppressed the agitators by incarcerating some and forcibly evicting the majority by confiscating papers supporting their citizenship. It is reported that the properties of the refugees have been handed over to the native Bhutanese.

There are over 20,000 Tibetan refugees taking shelter in Nepal. The US resettlement has, however, given preference to Tibetan refugees over Bhutanese refugees. Now, the question arises whether the US plan is going to resolve the refugee crisis for good. The US plan talks of taking away only half the refugees. What about the other half? The plan is silent on many aspects. It does not mention what the fate of the refugees will be after their landing in the US. How will they live their life there? Will they be provided with the amenities of life with high positions or end up being labourers or wage earners?

It is possible that only young, able refugees will be taken to the US, leaving behind children, the old and the weak. Should this happen, Nepal will be in a tight spot, having to look after the disadvantaged refugees. Although the US resettlement plan mentions the gradual resettlement of the remaining refugees in other countries, whether this actually materialises is in the womb of time.

There are still other Nepalese-speaking Bhutanese in Bhutan. When refugees are resettled in third countries, Bhutan may be even more encouraged to evict other people under its ethnic cleansing policy. The Bhutanese parliamentarians are against the repatriation of the refugees. They have repeatedly expressed their disagreement over the repatriation in Tsongdu (Parliament).

The ploys of Bhutan have been unfolding one after another over the last 16 years. First, Bhutan refused to recognize the refugees as bona fide Bhutanese citizens. With the verification of refugees in the Khudunabari camp, it has been clear that not all refugees are non-Bhutanese. The fact has been accepted by Bhutan itself. It is unvarnished truth that Bhutan has been giving Nepal and the world community the run-around. Whenever international pressures seem to mount on it or it has to face international dignitaries, Bhutan would show its alacrity to hold talks with Nepal and solve the problem. When a crucial juncture arrives, Bhutan would back out, making one alibi or the other.

This time around, Nepal and Bhutan have agreed to hold the 16th round of talks in November 2006. The Nepalese side is claiming that this round of talks will be the last and pave the way for solving the refugee problem. During the talks, the US resettlement plan will also be discussed, and attempts will be made to thrash out a permanent solution to the festering refugee imbroglio. Let's hope that the impending round of talks will be really the last one and the refugees will have a chance to come out of the cocoon of refugee status and live as full citizens.

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