Thursday, September 13, 2007

NEPAL: Some 60,000 Bhutanese refugees could settle in USA "soon"

Source: Reuters

KATHMANDU, 10 September 2007 (IRIN) - Nearly half of the 108,000 Bhutanese refugees in Nepal will soon be resettled in the USA with the help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), officials from the Nepalese government, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the IOM have told IRIN.

"We signed a MOU (memorandum of understanding) recently with the Nepalese government and we will soon have official contact with the refugees," IOM's David Derthick told IRIN after his visit to Damak, some 500km southeast of Kathmandu, where most of the refugees are living in camps.

Derthick said he had gone there to establish an IOM office to help the US government, which had selected IOM as its Overseas Processing Entity (OPE) for the Bhutanese refugees.

Since 1990 Bhutanese citizens of Nepalese origin - known as Lhotsampas in Bhutan - have been evicted from their homes by the Bhutanese government, which introduced a new law stripping them of citizenship and civil rights because of their ancestry.

Damak municipality is home to six of the seven Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal. According to the IOM, around 60,000 will be able to settle in the USA once they have been approved by the UNHCR.

Refugees divided
The UNHCR and IOM have made it clear that only those refugees wishing to opt for resettlement will be referred for migration to the USA. There has been growing tension among the refugees - with one group opting for repatriation to their homes in Bhutan and the other favouring third country resettlement.

However, refugee activists told IRIN that most would like to migrate to the USA as they saw little hope the Bhutanese government would take them back.

"We have suffered far too long and this [resettlement in a third country] seems to be the only way to lead a normal life again. We have given up hope of the Bhutanese government accepting us back," refugee activist Narbahadur Giri, chief coordinator of the Refugee Rights Coordinating Committee (RRCC), told IRIN.

He said there was a danger of tension and political divisions among the refugees given that many are young people. The newly emerging youth-led Communist Party of Bhutan-Maoist (CPBM) has been luring a lot of young refugees into their party and campaigning against third country resettlement, said a refugee leader requesting anonymity. He said CPBM members had been threatening and attacking those opting for migration to the USA.

The CPBM recently said it would disrupt the relocation process. In a press statement from an undisclosed location, it accused the US government and UNHCR of creating divisions among the refugees by making "lucrative" offers.

"Their cause is understandable given that their own parents and senior leaders suffered immensely at the hands of the Bhutanese government, but now we have to think about how to lead a normal life without so much hardship," said Giri.

Preparations for migration
The RRCC said security measures were under way to protect refugees and the refugee registration process prior to migration to the USA.

The IOM officials also said they would be assisting both the US government and refugees in the process. "We will be preparing refugee files for US immigration. In addition, we will also do medical health assessments on all refugees approved for resettlement," said Derthick.

The IOM will also provide cultural orientation courses, and transport from Damak to Kathmandu and thence to their final destination in the USA.

"Refugees will to have to indicate where they want to go and the UNHCR will make recommendations to other countries like Canada," Derthick added.

The UNHCR said it would organise a mass information campaign to update all stakeholders about the process and inform the refugees about resettlement.

"To ensure a smooth start to the resettlement process, UNHCR requires continued political and logistical support, as well as security measures from the government. Also, there is a need for the government to announce its policy on third country resettlement to the refugees in the camps," said UNHCR country representative Abraham Abraham.

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