Saturday, November 3, 2007

3,000 Bhutan refugees accept US resettlement (

About 3,000 Bhutanese, languishing in refugee camps in Nepal for nearly two decades, have become the first to accept the US government's offer to resettle in American cities and villages, defying pressure by a group that is seeking to return to Bhutan.

This was stated here Saturday by Ellen Sauerbrey, the US Assistant Secretary of State for population, refugees and migration, at the end of her four-day visit to Nepal to oversee the resettlement process that kicks off next week.

'About 3,000 Bhutanese refugees have already indicated their desire for resettlement,' Saurbrey said, adding that some applicants have already been cleared.

'We expect to see the first plane-load of refugees in the US by the latter part of Janaury,' she said.

The official said that in the next 12 months, Washington hopes to interview about 15,000 refugees willing to accept the resettlement offer, following which up to 20,000 people would be making their way to the US each year.

After being evicted by the Bhutan government, Bhutanese of Nepali origin began a frantic exodus to Nepal in the 70s.

Now there are almost 108,000 refugees living in misery in seven camps in eastern Nepal, under the supervision of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Though Nepal granted them asylum, they are not allowed to work or run businesses and remain abjectly dependant on donor countries.

Pressured by the west, Bhutan began reluctant repatriation talks with Nepal but abandoned them after 15 rounds.

With donors becoming weary and food and fuel supplies to the camps dwindling, the US, one of the major donors, stepped in with the resettlement offer.

Sauerbrey, who met about 5,000 refugees during her visit, said she was touched to see that many refugee children were still taught to offer a special prayer in the morning for the health of the king of Bhutan.

'The great majority (of refugees still) love their country and king and would go home and live happily and peacefully for the rest of their lives, given an opportunity,' the official said.

Sauerbrey said that she would take this message with her to Bhutan, where she begins her three-day visit from Sunday.

On Wednesday, she would head for New Delhi to hold discussions with officials from the ministry of external affairs.

Though India has refused to be drawn into the repatriation negotiations, saying it is a bilateral matter between Nepal and Bhutan, other governments, including Nepal, say that India has a very important role.

India is Bhutan's foreign affairs advisor and biggest trade partner.

Also, when the refugees fled their homes following an ethnic crackdown by the Druk government and crossed into India, Indian security forces herded them to Nepal.

However, when the refugees tried to return to Bhutan the same way, they were stopped.

Earlier this year, Indian border forces fired on unarmed refugees trying to return home, who included a large number of women. Two refugees were killed triggering international concern.

Sauerbrey emphasized that the international community was concerned that Bhutan could try to expel more Bhutanese of Nepali origin.

At a time Bhutan was trying to show the world that it was becoming democratic by holding the first general election, such a step, she said, would tarnish the government's image in the eyes of the world.

India also had a special responsibility to prevent that, Sauerbrey said.

'India has to be cognizant of the fact they have a responsibility that this doesn't happen again,' she said.

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