The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Friday, May 25, 2007

UN envoy to discuss refugee return with Bhutan

From correspondents in Kathmandu, Nepal, 12:33 PM IST

Despite an offer by the US and other western countries to provide a new home to Bhutanese refugees, many of who want to go back, UN's top envoy for refugees is going to Bhutan Thursday to broach the repatriation issue afresh.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who has visited India and Nepal, the other two key players in the 16-year tragedy, will seek to thaw an obdurate Bhutan that has steadfastly refused to take back the nearly 106,000 people of Nepali origin it forced to flee their homes in the 1990s.

'With many refugees, there is a clear preference to return,' Guterres said in Kathmandu, after returning from eastern Nepal where he had gone Wednesday to visit the diaspora.

'That has to be respected.

'That is why I am going to Bhutan.'

However, since the US government last month offered 'as many Bhutanese refugees as were interested' the chance to resettle in American cities and rural areas, the UNHCR is also discussing resettlement with Nepal, the host country, as part of a comprehensive and durable solution.

'Our objective is to open as many doors as possible,' the former Portuguese prime minister said.

The seeds of the Bhutanese imbroglio were sown in the 1980s after Bhutan passed a new citizenship act that cancelled the citizenship of many ethnic Nepalis and a conducted new census.

Mass protests against the acts in 1990 led to a massive crackdown on the community, causing tens of thousands to flee the country.

While 15,000-30,000 refugees have been residing in India since then, the majority came to Nepal.

Currently, there are nearly 106,000 Bhutanese refugees leading a bleak life in seven camps in eastern Nepal, administered by the UNHCR.

Though Bhutan had been parrying efforts by the international community to allow the refugees to return and 16 rounds of talks with Nepal resulted in naught, the UNHCR is hoping for a positive change after nearly two decades.

Besides the resettlement offer by the western countries, the first positive change is the new Nepal government saying yes to it. Till now, it had been blocked with Nepal insisting on repatriation first.

A thaw is also discerned in the attitude of the Indian government.

The international community, UNHCR and refugees say India, Bhutan's biggest donor and trading partner, can exert considerable influence on Thimphu. New Delhi has so far kept out of the dispute, saying it is a bilateral matter between Nepal and Bhutan.

However, Guterres, who visited New Delhi about two months ago, says an agreement has been reached with the Indian authorities to hold a yearly consultation, where all relevant data will be analysed together.

Before his Bhutan visit, the UN envoy has a word of assurance to lull the fears that Bhutan is readying for a fresh crackdown on ethnic Nepalis still living in Bhutan.

The latest census in Bhutan marks about 13 percent of the population as foreigners. Refugee groups fear they include largely ethnic Nepalis, who can see a recurrence of the 1991 backlash.

However, Guterres said it was his 'sincere belief' that such a tragedy would not recur.

(Staff Writer, © IANS)

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