The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Bhutanese agony

The pain of forced eviction continues to blight the lives of Bhutanese refugees

The hardships for Bhutanese refugees are not over, both for those languishing in camps in Nepal and for those who chose resettlement in the US. A report commissioned by the American agency, Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement shows that the suicide rate among the Bhutanese is much higher than the global or national average in the US. The suicide rate for Bhutanese in the US is 20.3 per 100,000 people whereas the comparable statistics for global population is 16. The rate for the US population itself is 12.4.  The Bhutanese suicide rate in the camps in Jhapa is also abnormally high at 20.7. In addition, the incidence of depression is also higher among them. These statistics signal towards a need for heightened efforts to address the issue in the future. The onus to do so lies with the refugee receiving countries as well as the host, Nepal. The biggest responsibility, of course, lies with the government of Bhutan, which has for more than two decades chosen to ignore crimes it committed when it forcefully evicted hundreds of thousands of Bhutanese of Nepali origin in the early 1990s.
Despite the Nepali government’s efforts to solve the issue with direct talks with the Bhutanese side, the issue remains unresolved with the latter refusing to accept the refugees back home, at least those who want to return to their homes in Bhutan.  Last year, the then Deputy Prime Minister, Narayan Kaji Shrestha met, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lyonchoen Jigmi Yoezer Thinley on the sidelines of the 67th UN General Assembly in New York and agreed to revive Ministerial Joint Committee meetings to find an amicable solution. Those talks haven’t materialised, and the issue has been marginalised at national, international and regional forums, thereby continuing to defer an issue that is both painful for the refugees and damaging to the relations among the nations in this region. In this regard, the Indian government’s position cannot be disregarded. After all, according to international norms and the Refugee Convention, all countries are obligated to provide sanctuary to refugees. Since Nepal does not border Bhutan, it was the responsibility of India to provide refuge to the Bhutanese wrongfully expelled by the Bhutan into the Indian soil. Instead of providing sanctuary to the vulnerable population, not only did the Indian government directed them to Nepali territory, but also prevented the refugees from returning to their homeland when they tried to do so.
After two decades of stalemate, many refugees in camps chose to resettle in Western countries. But, as the American report highlights, the transition to yet another country
has not been an easy one for the refugees. More than 74,000 of them, who have resettled in the US and other countries continue their grim struggle to find employment and security in worlds vastly different from the one they left behind. The dislocation is even harder for the older generation who find adjusting to a new community that much more difficult. Despite the resettlement efforts, it is certain that pains of forced eviction from their country will continue to blight the lives of the Bhutanese in Nepal and elsewhere. At this juncture, the most human response from the Bhutanese government would be to apologise to the refugees and at least let those who want to return home, get back to where they belong.

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