The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Bhutan may evict more ethnic Nepalis

By Tilak P. Pokharel

The Kathmandu Post
Publication Date: 19-05-2007

A report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday (May 17) said thousands of ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan, who escaped eviction in the 1990s, face "persistent discrimination" and are denied citizenship.

The report said such behavior by the Bhutanese authorities may ultimately force the remaining 81,986 ethnic Nepalis (according to Bhutan's 2005 census) to leave the country.

"While most ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan don't believe that they are currently at imminent risk of being expelled from Bhutan, they fear that without citizenship cards and without NOCs (No Objection Certificates), life in Bhutan will eventually become so difficult it will leave many of them with little choice but to leave the country," said the 86-page report released globally on Thursday.

Ethnic Nepalis have great difficulty obtaining the so-called NOCs, which are a pre-requisite for government employment, access to higher education, obtaining trade and business licenses, travel documents, and buying and selling land.

"Being denied a NOC deprives a person of almost all means of earning a living," said the report. "Not only does Bhutan remain unwilling to accept the vast majority of the Bhutanese refugees (languishing in camps in eastern Nepal), but it also continues to discriminate against the remaining ethnic Nepali population in Bhutan."

Resettlement to the US of many of the refugees could encourage the Bhutanese authorities to coerce more ethnic Nepalis to leave, said the report.

Releasing the report in Kathmandu, Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at HRW, said the Bhutanese authorities are making life for the ethnic Nepalis intolerable, though they may not push them to the border like in the 1990s. "That's the subtle way of ethnic cleansing," he said.

There are about 106,000 refugees, who were evicted from Bhutan in an ethnic cleansing in the early 1990s, languishing in seven UNHCR-run camps in Jhapa and Morang districts.

Furthermore, the report said, the fate of the remaining 46,000 refugees and of an estimated 10,000-15,000 unregistered refugees in Nepal and 15,000-30,000 unregistered refugees in India remains unclear.

Frelick said he could sense the militant activities going on inside the camps, to press for repatriation, not resettlement in a third country.

‘US offer sparks tensions’

The report of the New York-based human rights watchdog also said the United States' offer to resettle 60,000 of these refugees has given hope to them, "but has also heightened tensions in the camps".

"Since the announcement of the US resettlement offer, tensions in the camps have been building," the report added. "Partly, this is because of rumors and misinformation about the nature of the offer itself. It is also due to intimidation by groups militantly opposed to resettlement who insist that the only acceptable solution is return to Bhutan."

Frelick said, for the US resettlement program to be effective, it cannot operate in isolation.

"This requires a three-pronged strategy," he said. "First, resettlement should be a real option for as many refugees as want it… Second, Nepal should grant citizenship to those refugees who express a preference for local integration … and finally, the US, India and other countries should redouble their efforts to persuade Bhutan to allow refugees who want to repatriate to do so."

Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, is arriving on May 22 on a two-day visit. Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal, is scheduled to visit the Bhutanese refugee camps, besides meeting with Foreign Minister Sahana Pradhan and other officials. Sources said that during Guterres' visit the UNHCR is likely to announce the findings of a census conducted in the refugee camps starting in November last year.

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