Monday, July 30, 2007

Resettlement option nudges forward

KATHMANDU, July 28 - .The Home Ministry has agreed to provide between 25-30 armed policemen for each of the seven Bhutanese refugee camps within a month to help facilitate the process of resettlement in third countries, sources privy to this development told the Post.

"We had committed to beef up the security by Ashad-end (mid-July) but due to violence in the terai and other constraints, we could not do so," admits a top Home Ministry official when asked to confirm this development. The ministry has already written to APF and Nepal Police to provide additional personnel of about 200. .

As per an understanding, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Nepal (UNHCR-Nepal) has agreed to construct buildings for police personnel (both APF and Nepal Police) inside each of the camps and meet some related costs.

This new arrangement is in addition to an Armed Police Force (APF) base camp near the Beldangi camps with about 200 men.

For 17 long years, the evicted Lhostsampas (Nepali-speaking Bhutanese in southern Bhutan) - now numbering over 100,000 - have been waiting to lead a normal life outside their small huts. With Nepal-Bhutan bilateral efforts failing to find a solution vis-à-vis repatriation due to Bhutanese government's reluctance, refugees now want to avail themselves the next option - resettlement in third countries - which has become possible due to offer by core group countries.

The core group countries - the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand - have declared their intention to resettle tens of thousands of refugees on humanitarian grounds, with the US alone expressing its willingness to take in around 60,000 refugees.

But to the dismay of many refugees, some hardline youths in camps and their leaders outside have opposed the option. Outfits like Bhutan Communist Party (MLM) and Bhutan Tiger Force have sprung up and both these groups have threatened those who advocate third country option.

The violence in Beldangi-2 erupted after its pro-resettlement camp secretary Hari Bangale said, in an interview to a local FM station on May 28, that extremist refugee youths were preventing others from openly speaking in favor of third country resettlement. Soon after, he was beaten by the enraged youths and in an attempt to rescue him, the police had to open fire and two persons died subsequently. The lone police post inside the camp was torched. Although the situation is now returning to normal, UNHCR-Nepal feels security needs to be bolstered before it can move ahead with the resettlement process. Some refugees feel that way too.

"I cannot go back to my camp (in Beldangi-2) because I have openly spoken in favor of resettlement," Munna Giri, 23, told the Post in the capital. She fled the camp after the violence erupted and "I started receiving threats". Her parents and two siblings are still in the camp.

Groups like the Bhutanese Refugee Repr-esentative Repatr-iation Committee (BRRRC), and Bhutan Movement Steering Committee (BMSC) both headed by Tek Nath Rizal - who was jailed for a decade in Bhutan - are opposed to "resettlement in its present form". "Simple refugees are being hoodwinked and coerced to opt for resettlement; hence youths are angry," Rizal explains.

Others like Refugee Rights Coordination Com-mittee, AHURA-Bhutan, and Voice for Change advocate the pragmatic option - resettlement. These organizations insist that resettlement would in no way take away a refugee's right to return to Bhutan.

Interestingly, BRRRC had, in a letter to Arthur E Gene Dewey, US Assistant Secretary of State, who visited the camps in 2004, requested that the United States help explore "all alternative options".

If resettlement is derailed, there would be serious violence, fears Pingla Dhital from Beldangi-2, now in Kathmandu since 2005. "People are now keeping quiet as they do not want to risk disqualification for resettlement during the interview. But they may lose patience." The pro-settlement group claims that that there is a concerted misinformation campaign - like refugees would be holed up in camps in third countries, the physically challenged would not be accepted, among others.

UNHCR officials refute such allegations. "No disabled would be left behind if they chose to resettle," says Abraham Abraham, UNHCR-Nepal Represe-ntative. "In fact, the physically challenged would get specialized treatment in countries they would resettle in." Those with communicable diseases would be treated here first before they resettle abroad, he adds.

Govt's policy shift
On July 4, presenting its annual policy and program for 2007-08 to the interim Parliament, the government spoke of allowing refugees to resettle in third countries as a provisional solution on humanitarian grounds, while saying also that repatriation to Bhutan is the primary option. All along its policy had been advocating repatriation alone.

Census results
Home Ministry and the UN agency completed a long overdue census (re-counting) from November last year to May this year. The census found that there are 108,744 registered refugees. Of them 1,959 are 'disputed' cases: like children from Bhutan joining their parents in the camps after the latter had registered; women who married Nepali men; kids born out of such

wedlock, who, by law, are now Nepali citizens; trafficked women and girls who have returned; those who 'deregistered' and now have returned, and so on.

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