The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Sunday, November 12, 2006


Bhutanese refugees series- III:Death of the repatriation option?


BHUTANESE REFUGEES CAMPS, Nov 12 - Repatriation. That is what 106,000 Bhutanese refugees languishing in seven camps in eastern Nepal have been looking forward to for the last 16 years. As the years passed, repatriation became more elusive; but it is stronger now than ever before, in the days following the announcement of third country resettlement.
With India always distancing itself on the refugee issue saying it was a "bilateral issue" between Nepal and Bhutan, and the Druk monarch - who is thriving only with India's blessings - ever refusing to heed international outcry and to be moved by his evicted citizens' pains and agonies, the problem seems to be at a turning point.

That's why there is division among the refugees - who have otherwise shared the same pain and lived together for 16 long years - and they have already started to toy with extremist thoughts like considering taking up arms and "destabilizing" India's north-east. They have also started seeing an enemy in their erstwhile friends. A significant share of their anger towards the Druk king, Jigme Singye Wang-chuck, has been directed toward India, for the regional power's perpetual inaction on the issue.

Above all, there is too much polarization taking place among the refugees. In one of its documents, Refugee Rights Coordination Committee has said: "resettlement in third countries in the only option" left for the refugees. On the other hand, a banner hung outside the UN Complex, where the Bhutanese Repatriation Representative Committee (BRRRC) has been staging a sit-in for months, reads: "Repatriation is the only durable solution".

By and large, the refugees still harbor a slim hope on the upcoming Nepal-Bhutan talks scheduled for November 21-22. However, they are not too optimistic. "We certainly hope that the talks will be decisive, yielding some results," says Manorat Khanal, a camp secretary, adding that even if Bhutan agrees to take back its citizens, "100 percent repatriation is never possible". But, another camp secretary, Manoj Rai, feels just the opposite. "This talk won't be decisive," says Rai. "However, after this, those wishing to go to Bhutan should be able to go, those wanting to stay back in Nepal should be allowed to do so, and those agreeing to go to the third countries should also be allowed."

Another refugee, Pingala Dhital, says the refugees want liberation by being out of the camps. "They want liberation from the humanitarian problems," says Dhital.

Back in Kathmandu, Abraham Abraham, chief of Nepal mission of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which has been managing the camps and providing humanitarian assistance since the beginning, says the UN has no energy left to invest for the cause of repatriation.

"How long do you wait?" asks Abraham, the UNHCR Representative in Nepal. "They have lived there and suffered enough for 16 years. You can't indefinitely keep these refugees in the camps year after year." That's why, Abraham says, his office had been looking for resettlement countries in recent years. "Why not go and live somewhere else which is a little bit better and hope that one day you'll be able to go back home?"

Refuting allegations that UNHCR didn't do much for repatriation and did everything possible for third country settlement, Abraham says the first priority always is repatriation. "Repatriation still is the best and happiest solution," says he, adding that UNHCR - in its paper "The Bhutan-Nepal Quandary: The Need for a Comprehensive Solution" submitted to the governments of Nepal and Bhutan in April 2003 - had proposed to keep all three options open.

"Do you just sit back and do nothing, and continue watching the people suffer in the camps?" asks Abraham. "That's why we realized, that from the humanitarian angle, there was a need to try to find out how we can get them away. I am on a humanitarian track, not a political one."

Though the option of repatriation seems elusive, those who think repatriation is the only solution want to somehow involve "unwilling India" in the impasse. But, to date India has given no such indications.

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