The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Friday, November 10, 2006

Thousands have applied for TCR- Hari Bangale

Bhutanese refugees gathered at a meeting to come up with a unanimous voice on resolution of the refugee impasse raise hands to say "yes" to organize pressure campaigns for repatriation, ahead of the upcoming Nepal-Bhutan talks, on November 3, in Beldangi-II camp, Jhapa.

3 more countries to take Bhutanese refugees


KATHMANDU, Nov 10 - As the undercurrent of the United States' offer made in October to resettle 60,000 Bhutanese refugees continues to further deepen the division in the refugee community, at least three other countries have agreed with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to make similar offers in a "burden-sharing" effort.
Once they make such an offer, all 106,000 refugees can be resettled in third countries if the refugees are willing.

UNHCR Representa-tive in Nepal, Abraham Abraham said Australia, New Zealand and Canada - plus some member countries of the European Union - have already agreed to resettle refugees in their respective countries. "These are major resettlement countries. They have agreed to consider resettlement of Bhutanese," said Abraham, adding, however, that the countries haven't announced the numbers yet, because - he believes - the exact number of refugees is not known.

Australian Ambassador to Nepal, Graeme Lade, also said that Australia is prepared to "take its share". But, he said all eyes are glued to the upcoming Nepal-Bhutan talks of Nov 21-22, and if the talks fail, his country will be ready to take in refugees. "Nepal government will decide on the numbers," he added. Though the resettlement option has been considered by UNHCR and the international community as all efforts made in the past had been in vain, ordinary refugees back in the camps are deeply divided over the plan.

US offer splits refugees


"Bhutan should immediately take us back, settling us in our own lands. If not, either Nepal should assimilate us here or India should be ready to resettle us there. If they (Bhutan, Nepal and India) are not ready for either option, they should make seven bombs to explode in the seven (refugee) camps and exterminate all the refugees."

That's the theme of a two-page poem by Shiva Prasad Pokharel, an 80-year-old Bhutanese priest - now one among some 106,000 refugees languishing in camps in eastern Nepal since the last 16 years.

The frail-looking Pokharel approached this reporter - with a piece of paper in his hands which were shaking- at the end of a meeting called on November 3 by local refugee leaders to come up with a unanimous voice on resolution of the refugee imbroglio. Disheartened by the meeting held at Beldangi-II camp that was marked by arguments for and against repatriation or third country resettlement (TCR) that nearly turned into a brawl, Pokharel said,"That's the theme of my poem."

"Who wants to go to America?" asks Pokharel, referring to a recent offer made by the United States to resettle 60,000 refugees like himself in that country. "If you talk like this here, violence will immediately erupt. Only three out of 100 refugees say they don't want to go back to Bhutan."

Though the elderly Pokharel speaks the voice of thousands of refugees, other thousands - who think that voluntary repatriation is next to impossible - are strongly in favor of accepting the US offer and similar offers which other countries are "soon to announce", according to UNHCR. Therein lies the division and it is very strong.

Unlike Pokharel, Camp Secretary at Beldangi-II, Hari Bangale, sees no possibility of any dignified repatriation, and says TCR should be considered a robust option.

"Sticking only to the option of repatriation is like becoming a joker. It's like a big-bellied woman saying she is a virgin," Bangale told the gathering at Beldangi-II.

No sooner had Bangale finished his remarks than a young refugee, Chhabi Kharel, 29 - furious at Bangale's figure of speech - stood up from the audience to counter him. "All big-bellied women are not necessarily pregnant. You never advocated repatriation before. Why now?" And, Kharel sees "ulterior motives" in a campaign launched by some refugees in recent days advocating TCR as an option.

As the debate and arguments continued, some of the participants just walked out of the meeting and those remaining were making remarks from all corners.

Bangale further justified his views: "Thousands have applied for TCR. We can strive for repatriation from a third country also. What's there in the stiff insistence on returning only from Nepal? We should explore alternative options lest the 16 years of our plight is not to change for another 15-20 years."

As arguments and counter-arguments continued, another participant, Shree Lal Kafle, 47, said, "It seems we can't organize a joint program. We, who are in favor of repatriation, can't participate in any program (attended by TCR advocates)." Before

Kafle made his remarks, refugee Khem Sandilya, who is editor of Bhutan Jagaran, had said from the dais, "Those who are not for repatriation needn't come to the rallies (likely to be organized as a pressure campaign)."

Hitting out at those who are for keeping open all three options for resolution of the protracted refugee problem - repatriation, local integration and TCR, Kafle said, "Their position has put the nationalistic people in difficulty."

By this time, many of the participants had already walked out of the hall. In his effort to hold them back, Phurba Tamang, former head of Sector E, gave the example of Nepal. "Nepalis don't care about who has organized a mass meeting - be it by Nepali Congress or UML or the Maoists. They go there and listen to what they have to say," he said. "We also should have unity like that."

But, by that time, there weren't many left to listen to him. "When the US made the offer, I also thought at one point, why not go there," Tamang turned more sentimental. "But, I felt that the terraces, fields and soil of my country were beckoning me. Before becoming more attracted to the US offer, remember, there are talks going on (between Nepal and Bhutan). What else do we need if we can go back to Bhutan? We can think about other options if Bhutan again says during the upcoming talks that it is not taking its citizens back."

For refugees living in other camps too, going back to Bhutan is their first priority. "But, the TCR option too should be kept open," said Anjana Gurung, 19, of Pathari camp.

Likewise, in one of its documents, the Refugee Rights Coordinating Committee (RRCC), which is fed up with no progress over repatriation, said resettlement in third countries is the "only option" left for them.

Notwithstanding the things mentioned above, the meeting at Beldangi-II ended on a rather bitter note that Friday afternoon with no unanimity of voice. Against this background, the government and the UNHCR are jointly conducting a census starting November 15, which is also expected to gather the refugees' views on issues like repatriation, local integration and TCR.

Posted on: 2006-11-09 22:10:00

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