The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
Click over the map to know the differences

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Nepal: Bhutanese Refugee Screening Seriously Flawed

Nepal: Bhutanese Refugee Screening Seriously Flawed

International NGOs Declare Process Invalid
(Kathmandu) The screening of Bhutanese refugees by the governments of Bhutan and Nepal is fundamentally flawed, a joint mission of non-governmental organizations said at the end of a two-week mission to India and Nepal.
As Nepal and Bhutan prepared for further talks next week, the delegation urged donor governments to insist the process meet international human rights and refugee standards.
"The refugee screening process violates every international norm in the book," said Rachael Reilly, refugee policy advisor with Human Rights Watch.
The mission visited the Bhutanese refugee camps in southeast Nepal, where more than 100,000 refugees live in seven camps. They have been there since the 1990s, when they were arbitrarily stripped of their nationality and forcibly expelled from Bhutan. Nearly one-sixth of Bhutan's population was forced to flee the country at that time, making Bhutan one of the highest per capita generators of refugees in the world.
Since March 2001 the governments of Bhutan and Nepal have been screening the refugees in Khudunabari camp - population 12,000 - to determine their identities and their reasons for leaving Bhutan. The results of the screening, announced on June 18, 2003, will be used in determining the refugees' fate.
Refugees interviewed by the mission told of serious anomalies and failings in the verification process. These include:
  • Refugees were forced to recount their reasons for leaving Bhutan to officials of the same government responsible for their persecution and flight;
  • The criteria for categorizing refugees is not made public, so the refugees cannot effectively appeal their classification;
  • The majority of the refugees (70%) were classified as "voluntary migrants" after signing "voluntary migration forms" under duress when leaving Bhutan;
  • Many refugees in this category told the delegation that they were forced to flee discrimination, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, and threats to their physical safety in Bhutan;
  • In some cases, members of the same family have been placed in different categories, even though their reasons for fleeing Bhutan are identical, so they risk separation in the event of repatriation;
  • Some of the children born in the refugee camps have been classified as so-called "criminals" and could be liable to stand trial in Bhutan;
  • Some refugees who were minors in Bhutan and thus were not given identity documents have been classified as non-Bhutanese, even though their parents possess identity papers and have been put in different categories;
  • The joint screening team only interviewed male heads of households, denying women the opportunity to have their claims fairly considered;
  • There were no women on the joint screening team for most of the review process;
Refugees were divided into the following categories:
  • Category I - Bona fide Bhutanese citizens (293 people - just 2.5 percent of the refugee population);
  • Category II - Refugees who supposedly "voluntarily" migrated from Bhutan (8,595 people, or 70 percent of the refugees);
  • Category III - Non-Bhutanese (2,948 people, or 24 percent of the refugees);
  • Category IV - Refugees who have committed "criminal" acts, including those who participated in so-called "anti-national" (pro-democracy) activities in Bhutan (347 people, or 3 percent of the refugees).
"This process simply does not stand up to scrutiny under international law," said Peter Prove, Assistant to the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation. "Refugees have been classified as "criminals" in the absence of clear charges or any semblance of a trial, and apparently in punishment for exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association."
Category II is similarly flawed. All the refugees classified as so-called "voluntary migrants" told the mission that they signed so-called "voluntary migration forms" under duress when they were expelled from Bhutan. Many were unaware of the content of these forms and that signing them would result in their loss of citizenship under Bhutanese law.
"Under international law everyone has the right to leave and return to their own country," said Ralston Deffenbaugh, President of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. "Bhutan's policies clearly violate this right."
According to the last round of talks between Bhutan and Nepal in May 2003, refugees in Category II will be required to reapply for citizenship after a minimum probationary period of two years upon returning to Bhutan. But successful applicants will have to meet stringent requirements including fluency in Dzongkha, which is spoken mainly in northern Bhutan. Since most refugees from Southern Bhutan speak only Nepali, this requirement would mean that tens of thousands of refugees would be unable to re-acquire citizenship and could be rendered stateless.
A fifteenth round of talks between Bhutan and Nepal is due to begin on September 8. The delegation called on Bhutan and Nepal to address the inconsistencies and inadequacies in the screening process. They urged the following modifications:
  • All refugees in Categories I, II and IV should be able to return to Bhutan in safety and dignity, with full citizenship rights, and to their original lands and properties;
  • Refugees in Category III should have access to a full, fair and independent appeal process;
  • All anomalies in the process (such as members of the same family placed in different categories) must be investigated by an independent third party;
  • Future screening should be according to two categories only: Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese. Those classified as Bhutanese should be able to return to Bhutan with full citizenship rights. Those classified as non-Bhutanese should have access to a full, fair and independent appeal process.
  • Women should have full access to the verification process in order to assess their claims independently and fairly and the Joint Verification Team should include female interviewers;
  • Screening and repatriation should not proceed without the presence of an independent third party. Given its international refugee protection mandate, this should be UNHCR;
  • Refugee representatives should be included at all stages of the repatriation process.
"The international community must insist on a speedy, just, and lasting solution for the Bhutanese refugees," said Malavika Vartak, of Habitat International Coalition. "They should not endorse or support a process that would violate the refugees' rights."
Delegation members:
Rachael Reilly, Human Rights Watch
Peter Prove, Lutheran World Federation
Fr. Varkey Perekkatt S.J., Jesuit Refugee Service
Malavika Vartak, Habitat International Coalition - Housing and Land Rights Network
Ralston Deffenbaugh, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

No comments:

Post a Comment