Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Bhutan Refugees Wary of US Resettlement Offer

By Damakant Jayshi

KATHMANDU, Aug 14 (IPS) - After languishing for 17 years in temporary camps, some 108,000 ethnic Nepalis, expelled from their homeland in Bhutan, have a real chance to get out of the wilderness.

But while the promised land, the United States -- as well as several first world countries that form a ‘core group’ -- will accommodate the ‘Lhotsampa’ refugees, many of them continue to harbour hopes of repatriation to Bhutan.

"If the Nepal government, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the core group countries merely say, 'get up and board the plane' it will not work," Yadu Prasad Subedi, 27, told IPS. "A detailed dissemination of information is needed to allay the fears of refugees who want to opt for resettlement in third countries but are apprehensive about details,’’ the refugee said.

Although the prospect of resettlement in the U.S. is attractive, suspicion is rife in the camps that this is a ploy to break the determination of the refugees to return to Bhutan. The community stands divided between resettlement in third countries and repatriation to Bhutan -- even though this could mean facing the persecution from which they fled in the early 1990s.

While some are concerned that resettlement in the U.S. will quickly dissipate the movement to compel Bhutan to take the refugees back, others believe that the campaign could be continued and even intensified while based in a first world country.

Just how contentious the issue is became apparent late May when a mob of those advocating repatriation to Bhutan attacked supporters of resettlement in third countries. Two persons were shot to death when Nepali police opened fire to quell the violence.

Subedi says he is tired of ‘’waiting for so many years’’. ‘’I want to take the plane sooner rather than later."

At the beginning of this year, the U.S., Canada, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand -- known as the 'core group' -- announced that they were ready to resettle the refugees. The U.S. alone has offered to take on 60,000 and has set no cap. According to UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) other interested countries are Ireland, Argentina, Brazil and Chile.

But instead of celebrating the refugees in the UNHCR-run camps have, since the resettlement offers were announced, been living in a state of tension with pro- and anti-resettlement refugee groups trading charges and counter-charges.

Many of the younger refugees are impatient. Those in their 20s are eager to avail of the chances offered in the first world countries. Data provided by UNHCR shows that of the 108,000 odd refugees 63,000 are in the 18-59 category.

"I am willing to go to the U.S., my first choice, or to any of the core group countries to study and work," says a 28-year old chemistry graduate who requested anonymity because he is teaching in an institute in the Nepalese capital. Refugees cannot legally work in Nepal.

He and others who have managed to get higher education outside the camp schools -- where education is limited to the secondary level -- are frustrated when they see their chances of making it in the developed world delayed.

Pingala Dhital, 34, who established an organisation called Voice for Change a couple of years ago to press for a durable solution to refugee crisis, says many refugees are tired of seeing no progress in talks between Nepal and Bhutan to settle the issue. "Except for a few older ones who might prefer Bhutan, many would be willing to go just anywhere as long as it means leading a life outside the camps," Dhital told IPS in her rented apartment in the Nepalese capital.

The refugees started arriving in eastern Nepal via India (Nepal and Bhutan do not share a border) in the early 1990s, alleging forced eviction by the Bhutanese government, under an 'ethnic cleansing' drive -- a charge that the 'Dragon Kingdom' denies.

Fifteen rounds of talks between the foreign ministers of Nepal and Bhutan, aimed at securing the refugees' safe repatriation and dating back to 1993, have yielded little progress.

Most Bhutanese refugees say their first choice is to go back home, and their leaders speak of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other international treaties that oblige Thimphu to take them back. But not one refugee has been able to return in all these years.

This year the Nepal government, following a request from the UNHCR and donor countries, decided to open up to resettlement on humanitarian grounds. There are indications that India, where some 20,000 already live, may follow suit.

The chief of the UNHCR here, Abraham Abraham, says the organisation is ready to begin resettlement but wants the government to bolster security in the camps first.

‘’What we need is a chance to make a free choice between resettlement and staying on to continue the movement to pressure Bhutan into granting us our rights,’’ said one refugee asking not to be named. ‘’Right now we live in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.’’

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