The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Monday, June 18, 2007

Divided refugees & unending crisis

By Dr Dhurba Rizal
The day-to-day monotony of camp life has exacerbated dejection and depression, domestic and sexual violence, crime and political extremism and increasing anxiety and restlessness of youth about their future. These things have resulted in violence and conflict in the camps. Looking through the simplifying lens of theory, the refugee issue appears simple. However, the reality reflecting is much more complex than what is painted. This is robustly corroborated by the recent position of India that "refugee issue is international one".
A heightening of international interest in this issue appears to have prompted several important steps that have been taken in the recent times. The US offer to resettle up to 60,000 Bhutanese refugees is the vital landmark toward resolving one of the world's most intractable refugee situations. However, to be effective, this offer cannot operate in isolation. It should be only a catalyst for a comprehensive solution to the refugee crisis. The comprehensive solution requires a multi-pronged strategy.
There is no political formula to achieve comprehensive solution. In many ways, the best approach stakeholders can take is to seize opportunity when it arises so as to facilitate the process of comprehensive solution. It seems that UNHCR has adopted the policy of 'deterrence'. The agency acquiesced the third country resettlement because it had little alternative-patrons held the purse strings and were going to deal with refugee issue whether UNHCR liked it or not. The ethics of repatriation is accompanied by a discursive shift that makes it more likely that refugees themselves should have a voice in determining their future.
Any form of resettlement originally required that refugees give consent for the same as this will provide avenue to decide their destiny in a free environment. Most of the refugees wish to return to Bhutan. The international community should first ensure that refugees who wish to repatriate are able to do so on conditions of safety and dignity. For the rest, the international community must help achieve a durable solution.
Some argue that comprehensive solutions should not be considered until repatriation is completed. There is a genuine fear that resettlement of the refugees to the United States and other countries will encourage the Bhutanese authorities to coerce more Lhotsampas to leave.
A census conducted in 2005 declares 13 percent of Lhotsampas as "non-nationals." The comprehensive solution should start simultaneously to engage Bhutan in the process. Refugee warehousing should not happen in Nepal. It would be preferable to alight upon a solution to the problem, one that takes into account the concerns of India, the United States, donors, Bhutan and Nepal. It should equally respect the rights of the 'people in the camps,' who have endured over 17 years of exile with extraordinary dignity and patience.
It is imperative that the comprehensive agreements should be inked with Bhutan and other stakeholders before taking any option of resettlement by refugees as this could open the cans of worms that refugees do not want to face with. To achieve this, refugee leaders should focus more on a comprehensive solution with concerned stakeholders. It is time for the refugee leaders to request Nepal, India and the United States to convene an international round table conference to bring Bhutan and other stakeholders together as all the stakeholders have a vital role to play for successful resolution of this protracted refugee situation.
Nepal should agree to settle those who don't want to go anywhere with right to citizenship as well as work with Bhutan, the United States and other resettlement countries to respect refugees' right to leave the country. Bhutan should create conducive conditions as repatriation in safety and dignity is feasible only if Bhutan is willing and able to guarantee respect for returnees' human rights. Bhutan should respect and protect the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of the ethnic groups. India is part of the problem and it needs to be part of the solution.
India, with the help of the international community, has the opportunity to be leader in the world by pursuing 'positive unilateralism' in foreign policy to end warehousing and share the responsibility in the region rather than helping few select ruling elites to bring artificially engineered demographic balance in Bhutan. It has to ensure that it provides safe passage to Bhutan for returnees refugees and guarantee that they will support for inclusive reforms in Bhutan politically, economically and socio-culturally to accommodate all ethnic groups.
The United States and international community should bring pressure to bear on Bhutan to respect the refugees' right to return. In case of third country settlement, refugees may want to maintain their national identity and attachment to their country of origin by remaining marked out with special status and treatment. This means resettlement does not preclude eventual repatriation, but only takes the refugees out of limbo and provides them productive life. This is strongly echoed by US Ambassador James F Moriarty: "Third-country resettlement does not preclude the right of refugees to return to Bhutan should conditions there permit return at a later date".
I believe that no offer of a durable solution, be it local integration or resettlement to a third country ceases Bhutan's obligations under international law to respect the right of all Bhutanese and preempt refugees' right to return to Bhutan. Bhutanese refugees may finally have an end in sight for their ordeal.
However, unless hard measures with rational acumen is taken by the refugee leaders, worse fates befall refugees in particular as national, regional and international dynamics of politics will change and become unfavorable for refugees. The present reality dictates that it is time to learn hard lesson from Tibetan and Palestine refugees, who have been trapped in protracted situation for more than five decades. It is the ripe moment to seize the opportunity for comprehensive solutions to refugee imbroglio as India has listened to canary song after seventeen years.

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